It was Milos Raonic’s toughest test of the 2015 Australian Open – a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-7(7), 6-3 win over Feliciano Lopez on a chilly Mondayafternoon and evening in Hisense Arena.
The 10,000-seat stadium was about two-thirds full and those there enjoyed a competitive match between two talented servers. A Lopez fan seated in the front row behind the court said the atmosphere didn’t compare with the excitement of the previous night in Hisense when the host nation’s Nick Kyrgios pulled out a thrilling 8-6 in the fifth set win over Andreas Seppi.
Still, there was a fair bit of passion on both sides Monday with Canadian supporters probably holding the advantage over the Spaniards. At least they had the numbers in flags – at one point there were six different red Maple Leafs visible around the four sides of the stadium.
Though Raonic was pushed to five after fairly uncomplicated wins over Illya Marchenko, Donald Young and Benjamin Becker in the first three rounds, he was always ahead or even in the score and his big serve was, as usual, his security blanket.
The first set was very close with Raonic holding a break point in the second game and Lopez saving it with a big second serve. Raonic had a break point in the eighth game and missed a service return but broke in the next Lopez service game when the Spaniard double-faulted long.
The second set turned on the ninth game when Lopez capitalized on some sloppy play by Raonic to break on a wild forehand misfire.
In the third set it was a similar story, but this time it was Raonic breaking early – in the second game as Lopez at 30-all missed a regulation forehand in the net and then double-faulted long again.
Lopez would later describe the break as “silly” on his part because it allowed Raonic to regain the momentum and force him to try to break serve, something he was able to do only once.
In the fourth set, the match had its most compelling moments with Lopez saving a break point at 5-all with a beauty ‘dead dart” backhand volley.
In the tiebreak, the players exchanged mini-breaks on the first two points and then Lopez went up 4-2 before Raonic reeled him in to 4-4. At 6-5 match point for Raonic, Lopez hit another backhand volley winner – he was 28 of 44 (64 per cent) at the net. At 7-6 and another match point forthe Canadian, Raonic later said he played a good point – chipping a backhand deep down-the-line and coming in. But Lopez hit an absolute rocket, outstanding backhand pass low over the net which Raonic couldn’t handle on the forehand volley.
Two points later, more fine net play and a second Lopez volley – a forehand cross-court – was a winner. He celebrated taking the set by pointing skyward.
Lopez had saved three match points in his first round (Denis Kudla) and one in his second round (Adrian Mannarino), could it now be two more against Raonic?
In the fifth set, Raonic only lost five points in his first four service games and finally got the break leading 4-3. Lopez started the game with a double fault and, though the game went to deuce, he finished with a double fault – again long.
Raonic served out in style – aces of 217 km/hr, 215 km/hr and 223 km/hr followed by a backhand wide by Lopez to end the three-hour and five-minute contest.
There was a sense that Raonic wasn’t quite as sharp as his first three matches but some of that goes down to Lopez. He has a tricky left-handed serve and knows how to play serve-and-volley tennis – doing it 78 times and winning 51 points for a 65 per cent success rate. Raonic’s success rate was superior – 100 per cent, but then he only serve-and-volleyed once!
“I felt better against Becker,” Raonic conceded about his form in the match, “but I think the level was about the same. It was just because he was changing things up a lot, making me feel uncomfortable.”
Raonic was three of 13 on break points – each of the breaks coming on a double fault. He joked about getting those breaks the easy way, “that’s a bonus – if I couldn’t do it, thankfully he did it for me.”
Again, his first serve percentage, something he and coaches Ivan Ljubicic and Riccardo Piatti worked on in the off-season, was an impressive 75 per cent and he won 79 per cent of first serve points.
About those fateful double faults, Lopez said, “maybe I went for too much on the break points, but many other days that was working – today it didn’t.”
Regarding his feeling after saving the two match points in the fourth set tiebreak, the 33-year-old from Madrid said in his somewhat fractured English, “I was out in the first round and even more out in the second round. Today I was close, saved two match points again, but he played better in the fifth set.”
Lopez is a talented player, but you have to wonder how someone so good can reach the career-high ranking (No. 14) at his current age of 33, as he has done. Surely, a player as talented as him could have been in the Top 10 at some point in his 20s.
Personally I recall a match against Roger Federer in Madrid in 2011, which was probably his best chance (0-11) to beat Federer. He lost 7-6(13), 6-7(1), 7-6(9) and a crucial point was when he botched a make-able smash in the third set tiebreak with an excellent opporty to win.
That’s long in the past now and Lopez is out and Raonic, watched by girlfriend Danielle Knudson – above between his manager Austin Nunn and his father Dusan) – now faces top seed Novak Djokovic in Wednesday’s quarter-finals.
Raonic lost highly-competitive matches to Djokovic on clay in Rome and at Roland Garros last spring and a one-sided 6-2, 6-3 indoor final in Paris in November. Asked how things may have changed, he said, “I’m doing things differently, I’m moving better. I feel like I have it in myself. I just have to bring it out.”
It was decided chilly – 14 degrees on Monday night – causing Raonic to joke to one Aussie reporter, “this is too warm to call it Canadian weather.”
But the fact remains it is decidedly cold here for mid-summer (the equivalent of a Canadian July).
After he beat Gilles Muller 6-4, 7-5, 7-5 on Monday in an Australia Day match that ended just before midnight, Djokovic spoke about the cold, and the fact that he may not have moved quite as well as he usually does against the big-serving and net pressure of the lefty from Luxembourg. “Today it was a pretty cold day and there wasn’t much bounce in the ball,” said. “It quite suited his style of game.”
One assumes that Djokovic, partly because he finished late tonight, will come back at night on Wednesday against Raonic, with the Nishikori – Wawrinka quarter-final being in the afternoon.
The forecast is for an even nippier low temperature – 12 degrees – on Wednesday evening.
If Djokovic thought Monday’s conditions favoured Muller, it might follow that Wednesday’s might give Raonic an advantage.
Raonic’s win over Lopez produced a few statistics that are of dubious import – that he is the first Canadian since Mike Belkin in 1968 to reach the Aussie Open quarter-finals as well as the quarter-finals of three Grand Slams since Robby Powell eons ago at Wimbledon in 1908, 1910 and 1912.
The numbers that might be of more importance are those on the thermometer on Wednesday when he starts pounding down his big serve against Djokovic, the best returner in the game.
Genie vs. Maria
Genie Bouchard will definitely have her game-face on, as she did above against Kiki Bertens in the second round, when she faces Maria Sharapova in a quarter-final in Rod Laver Arena at approximately 1 p.m. (9 p.m. Monday EDT in Canada) on Tuesday.
Here are their three previous meetings – with an obvious progression for the Montrealer, 20, against the 27-year-old resident of Manhattan Beach, California.
2014: French Open semifinal – Sharapova 4-6, 7-5, 6-2.
2013: French Open 2nd round – Sharapova 6-2, 6-4.
2013: Miami – 2nd round – Sharapova 6-2, 6-0.
Sharapova is a 5/2 favourite against Bouchard with Melbourne’s legal bookmakers, which seems like a large number.
Some people may be put off by her letting a 3-0 lead slip and losing the second set against Irina-Camelia Begu in the round-of-16, but that may have been a good thing because her first three matches were pretty well one-way traffic affairs. It may have been a useful experience to have to dig her way out and win the third set 6-2.
Melbourne post card
Any name with a ‘mick’ in front of it – McDonald, McNamara, MacPherson etc. – is shortened to “Macca” in Australia. Even the world’s largest hamburger chain has adjusted its signs Down Under.