Milos Raonic advanced to the round-of-16 at the US Open on Friday night with a 7-6(6), 6-4, 6-3 win over Stan Wawrinka while, earlier in the same Louis Armstrong Stadium, Denis Shapovalov lost a thrilling five-setter to Kevin Anderson, going down by the slimmest of margins – 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
After struggling with a variety of injuries the past two years, Raonic is showing the 2016 form that got him to the Wimbledon final, a career high ranking of No. 3 and an unforgettable semi-final at the ATP Finals in London – holding a match point before losing 5-7, 7-6(5), 7-6(9) to world No. 1 Andy Murray.
After a stellar display against Wawrinka – including matching the three-time Grand Slam champion in percentage of baseline points won – Raonic was asked the last time he had played at such a high level. “I think towards the end of 2016,” he replied.
Shapovalov could easily have joined Raonic in the round-of-16 as he put on a dazzling display of power shot-making that just fell short against world No. 5-ranked Anderson. He won over the crowd in 14,053 capacity Louis Armstrong Stadium with his gusto and his fearlessness – hitting 59 winners to 31 for Anderson.
Both Raonic and Shapovalov won the opening sets of their matches. It was more of a struggle for Raonic who twice trailed by a mini-break in the tiebreak and faced two set points at 6-4 before pulling it out with the help of some forehand wobbles from Wawrinka – two unforced forehand errors to give up his mini-break advantages in the tiebreak and then one to lose the set on the final point.
“He sort of gave me opportunities in that first set,” Raonic said about the 33-year-old Swiss. “He missed a few forehands. Let me get back into it. I was a little bit lucky there. After that, I thought I was able to sort of dictate more, get in more of his service games, take control of the match.”
Raonic faced just one break point the entire match – saving it with a second serve that Wawrinka couldn’t control in the 11th game of the opening set.
“When you play Milos, you don’t have a lot of chances,” Wawrinka said, “but you need to take them. Today I wasn’t strong enough, tough enough in important points. In the key points, I was a bit soft.”
Shapovalov was anything but soft as he competed hard against Anderson. As in his last round versus Andreas Seppi, he rallied from a two-sets-to one deficit to force a fifth and deciding set after surviving a stretch in the middle of the match when Anderson was serving impeccably and was virtually untouchable in his service games. Despite being frozen out during that impressive run of Anderson serving, Shapovalov never lost the faith or let up.
In the fifth set, after he was broken in the third game, he had three break point chances trailing 3-2 and then saved four match points serving down at 5-3 before Anderson finally served out the match to 15 with some heavy-duty deliveries that really gave Shapovalov no chance.
“I thought it was great tennis throughout – an incredible atmosphere,” the 32-year-old Anderson said. “I really had to dig deep to get through that one.” He continued about Shapovalov, “I think so far in his pretty young career he has played great tennis, especially in the big stadiums in front of thousands of people. That bodes very well for him moving forward. He’s a really exciting player. Obviously he’s going to continue to mature and get more experience.”
There was a disputed line call when Shapovalov had a break point in the sixth game of that final set. He hit a ball that landed on the baseline but was called out. The umpire over-ruled and a Hawk-Eye challenge determined the ball was good. So the point was replayed. When it was Anderson hit a quick-strike 130 mph serve that Shapovalov returned well wide to save the break point. The crowd immediately reacted by lustily booing – with that special kind of New York energy – believing their man Shapovalov had been wronged.
“I’m not going to blame the whole match for that,” he said about the corrected call and replay. “It’s one point. There’s probably, I don’t know, 500 points today. It’s normal. It’s tennis. It happens. Everyone’s human. Everyone’s allowed to make mistakes.”
While Shapovalov has flair and verve on the court that few players, including Raonic, have, the latter did put on a clinic of scintillating shot-making against Wawrinka. His serve numbers – 60 per cent first serves made, 87 per cent of first-serve points won and 60 per cent of second serve points won – were solid and he won 27 of 37 (73 per cent) of net points. But probably the most outstanding feature of his game was his dynamite inside/out forehand that he was able to consistently hit wide to Wawrinka’s backhand at an amazing angle.
Asked about it afterward, Raonic explained, “sometimes he was just trying to push me back. So it’s a little bit easier when the ball is higher to get that angle, rather than if, let’s say, he was slicing a bit more to me. I think it would be tougher for me to create that angle.”
Both Raonic and Shapovalov were playing for the first time in the newly rebuilt and cavernous Louis Armstrong Stadium.
“It’s quite a bit bigger,” Raonic said comparing it to the previous arena. “It’s just quite noisy the whole time. It definitely takes a little bit of getting used to to sort of quiet that noise in your head.”
Shapovalov and Anderson started their match with the roof open but it was closed after the South African broke serve for the first time in the sixth game of the second set as a light drizzle began.
“The only thing that bothered me a little bit,” Shapovalov said about the Armstrong arena, “especially when the roof closed, was the screen. It’s a huge (video) screen right in front of you. They’re constantly showing replays, showing live points. It’s really tough to focus. I mean it’s like right in front of your face, and it’s massive.
“Other than that, it was unbelievable to play there, on Louis Armstrong. By the fifth set, the stands got packed. The fans were so with me. Obviously I love the fans here in New York. They seem to always be on my side.”
Shapovalov was generous in his praise of Anderson related to his sporting gesture of waiting to take a medical time-out after a tumble until after the end of the last game of the opening set – allowing him the opportunity to (successfully) serve it out.
Summing up the whole experience, Shapovalov said, “it was a battle out there. I gave it all I had – nothing to regret from it.”
While Shapovalov now returns home to represent Canada in a Davis Cup World Group Playoff in Toronto from September 14-16, Raonic stays in New York and plays John Isner on Sunday attempting to reach the first US Open quarter-final of his career – following three round-of-16 finishes from 2012-2014.
The head-to-head between the two is 4-1 in Isner’s favour. But a good omen is that Raonic was also 4-1 H2H down to Wawrinka before their Friday night encounter.
The last Raonic-Isner match-up was in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in July when Raonic tore his right quadricep muscle in the first set on his way to losing 6-7(5), 7-6(7), 6-4, 6-3.
In their five matches, these two – both monster servers – have been involved in nine tiebreaks in the 13 sets played. Isner has won five of the nine but Raonic has taken three of the last four.
“I think we’re both quite aware of what the other guy wants to do,” Raonic said. “We’re both aware that opportunities are not going to be arising that often. It’s going to be important to be disciplined and to make sure you sort of are always disciplined and sharp with yourself when those situations arise.”
As for the 33-year-old Isner, whose wife Madison is expecting their firstborn (a daughter) on September 22nd, he said about Raonic, “he seems to be playing very well – back to his level of a few years past. He’s an excellent player, he’s proved that his whole career. We’ve played a handful of times. Matches between us are inherently close, as you can imagine. We’ll see what happens.”
Whatever happens Raonic’s ranking is back on an upward trend – he will probably be no worse than No. 20 at the end of the US Open – the first time he’s been in the top-20 since the 30th of October, 2017.
As Raonic rises again, Shapovalov will drop from No. 28 to No. 34 after failing to equal his round-of-16 finish at Flushing Meadows a year ago. But no one would suggest that he’s in any kind of a decline.
Brad Stine, a 60-year-old American who is Anderson’s coach and who coached Jim Courier to two French Open and two Australian Open titles in the early 1990s, got to know Shapovalov while he was coaching American players participating in the same events as him.
“When I first started with the USTA a few years back – and I was in Australia for the juniors – I met Denis,” Stine said. “I’ve always been really impressed with him as a player and as a person. I enjoyed being around him.
“I think that he still has a lot of room to improve, which is actually pretty scary. I think that tactically there are some things that he can probably do better – but I’m not going to tell you about that – and I think that he can improve in some other areas of his game as well. I think the sky is the limit. It’s just a matter of getting in the right direction and working in the right ways and continuing to work hard, which I know he does. I think he really loves the game and I think he loves competing. Those are the most important things. He’s got an exceptional future ahead of him.”
Despite not reaching the semi-finals of the 2018 Rogers Cup – a third round – as he did last year, or making the fourth round – a third round – of the US Open as he did a year ago, few close to the tennis scene see those results as any kind of a setback – certainly not Shapovalov himself.
“I just feel like I belong out there this year,” the 19-year-old said on Friday, a year down the tennis road from his 2017 success at Flushing Meadows. “I’m able to compete with anyone, as I showed today. I feel like my game’s at a different level.”
This is the inscription on the front of the main building of Rockefeller Center facing 5th Avenue. The core of the iconic Manhattan landmark was completed in 1939.
NOTE: No blog on Saturday – back for Raonic – Isner on Sunday.
(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)