Both Milos Raonic and his coach Goran Ivanisevic were on the same page when it came to their pre-match thoughts on facing Juan Martin del Potro in Saturday’s semi-final at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
“He needs to bring the legs and energy from the first point,” Ivanisevic said about his player in a pre-match interview with ESPN’s Brad Gilbert.
As for Raonic, he echoed the day’s mantra, saying, “I think I’ve got to start off with a lot of energy so that way I can get up early and keep it throughout.”
When Raonic began the match with an ace and won the opening game on five quick points, all seemed to be going to plan.
But two games later, at 1-1, he lost serve to love – two forehand unforced errors followed by a backhand UE and a del Potro bomb backhand down-the-line winner accounted for the damage.
The 6-foot-6 Argentine then held serve to make it 3-1. That still needn’t have been that disastrous for Raonic. But when he lost the next game on a serve-and-volley attempt that ended badly with a backhand volley into the net, it was clear the first set was done.
In the second set Raonic was broken in the third game on a double fault.
At that point in ESPN’s coverage they began showing Roger Federer’s media conference (split screen) after his hard-fought 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 semi-final victory over Borna Coric.
When the split-screen coverage ended and ESPN returned to the match, commentator Chris Fowler said, “we believed you’d find Roger’s remarks more compelling than the match we’re watching.”
That may have been a little harsh but it was undeniable that Raonic never came close to finding his game – and windy conditions in 16,100-seat Stadium 1 did not help. The final score was 6-2, 6-3.
With hindsight, it’s easy to see that Raonic, having only played four matches (1-3) in 2018 as he returns from an injury-plagued season (and off-season), is still not back to the form that saw him reach the 2016 Wimbledon final and a career-high ranking of No. 3 later that same year.
“He’s played more matches in the last week than I played this year so far,” Raonic said in jest about del Potro during his post-match media conference. Actually Raonic has now only played eight matches in 2018 (4-4) while del Potro is at 19 (16-3).
The windy conditions were also an issue, particularly with Raonic being a player not as match-tested as his opponent this season. “Even with the wind and a little bit tougher conditions today,” he said explaining his poor play, “you fall into these things a little bit easier.
“I was sort of trying to find a groove. Especially when you sort of haven’t played for a while, you already are overthinking a lot of things. And then, with the wind, you’re not sure. You don’t have that calm and ease about going through things and figuring things out on the fly.”
Despite the blustery conditions, sometimes with gusts well over 30 km/hr, Raonic usually doesn’t mind the wind. “I have always actually been okay playing in the wind because most guys, they tend to slow down their shots when it gets windy,” he said. “It gives me a lot more short balls that I can come forward on, put pressure on.”
The match stats after the 64-minute encounter weren’t kind to Raonic. He had 14 winners (including six aces) and 19 unforced errors while del Potro’s ratio was 15/8.
At the line when serving, Raonic won 63 per cent of first serve points and only 39 per cent of second serve points and was broken four times. He did not have a single break point against his Argentine opponent who won 89 per cent of first serve points and 62 per cent on his second delivery. A final indication of Raonic futility on the day was a success rate of 8/23 at the net as opposed to a tidy 5/5 for del Potro.
Now 2-2 in his career head-to-head with the 29-year-old Argentine, Raonic made an insightful observation about his opponent’s game. “I didn’t play him before his injuries (circa 2010) but his backhand was probably one of the things that was overlooked because the forehand was so hard,” Raonic said about del Potro. “But the backhand…I remember when he won the (2009) US Open he could hit it crosscourt without any guys being able to have the freedom of running around or anything. He’s gotten that back quite a bit.”
While the one-sided loss will leave a bitter taste in Raonic’s mouth, the 2018 BNP Paribas Open could be a kick-start for the rest of his season – and one reason is that he has come out of his four matches reasonably fit.
“Things hurt but thankfully it’s things that are just aches,” he said. “Especially when you don’t play that much for a long time, when you play three, four, five, six days in a row, things just start to ache.
“Thankfully none of the injuries or anything is causing any kinds of pain or concern. It’s just until you get used to – especially on hard courts – coming back day, after day, after day, training or matches, you just ache a little bit more and more. And that goes away with time.
“When you don’t have to step away for a long time, you take for granted – especially a guy my size – how much it takes to really run and pound and jump and change direction on a hard court, or any surface, for that matter.”
Four matches in seven days is a lot compared to the total of four he had played in all of January and February entering Indian Wells. His injuries and the ensuing long rehab have been well reported. It appears it has all affected his playing weight and coach Ivansevic about his player, “at the moment he needs to lose two or three kilos – it will make him more competitive because he’s a big guy.”
The Raonic bottom line on Indian Wells is that it can now finally be said that his season has properly started. The good news rankings wise is that his semi-final will move him from No. 38 to No. 25. That’s progress and, after sneaking into the final seeding slot at No. 32 after withdrawals at Indian Wells, he will be assured of a place in the 32 seeds for next week’s Miami Open.
After his win over Sam Querrey in Friday’s quarter-finals, Raonic said about his expectations entering the tournament, “I don’t know what I expected. I knew I could play much better than I did over the last weeks.”
He did that and will now need to be even better in the weeks and months to come.
The two Canadians, Vasek Pospisil and Brayden Schnur, remaining in the National Bank Challenger event in Drummondville, Que., were eliminated in Saturday’s semi-final action.
Pospisil, top-seeded, was beaten by 21-year-old Benjamin Bonzi. The No. 221-ranked Frenchman won by a 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 score.
Schnur lost 6-4, 6-2 to No.162-ranked Denis Kudla, 25, of the U.S., but still moved back into the top-200 with his semi-final showing – going from No. 202 to No. 194.
Pospisil slipped two points from No. 75 to No. 77. Between qualifying for Indian Wells and reaching the semi-finals in Drummondville, he limited the damage from the 61 points he is defending from making the third round in Indian Wells (beating Andy Murray in the second round) a year ago.
As tough as it was for Pospisil to lose, it was admirable of him to go to Drummondville directly from Indian Wells where he lost in the first round to compatriot Félix Auger-Aliassime.
Saturday’s defeat doesn’t really lessen a remarkable run at his last five Challenger events dating back to Busan, South Korea, last May. Pospisil has won three titles – Busan, Rennes and Budapest – and reached semi-finals at the Oracle Indian Wells Challenger and in Drummondville.
Over those five Challengers, he compiled a record of 21-2 – probably the best stretch ever by any Canadian at the Challenger level.
Travelling around Indian Wells and the Coachella Valley drivers are constantly tempted to take their eyes off the road and look at the breathtaking views of mountains and sky all around.
Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz