Gael Monfils is on a roll and Milos Raonic was a notch below his best on Friday night. The result was a 6-4, 6-4 victory for the charismatic Frenchman in the Rogers Cup semifinals.
The tennis universe was unfolding as it should for Raonic as he quickly took 40-love leads in his first three service games of the match and won each one easily.
But it all unravelled when he served at 3-all and his forehand let him down. He began the game with consecutive forehand UEs (unforced errors) and then lost it on another forehand UE sprayed wide cross-court.
In the following game things looked poised for an immediate break back. Raonic had three break points but Monfils survived when he missed two forehand service returns into the net and another forehand just wide after a long, exciting rally that had the crowd going wild.
Monfils took the first set and then was again opportunistic in the second, breaking Raonic when he served at 4-all. As in the first set, Raonic lost the opening point on a forehand UE then the second when Monfils hit a deft, low service return that Raonic volleyed into the net on the backhand. Another forehand UE and it was love-40 and Monfils was a point away. The decisive break point came from a rally where Monfils’ scrambling ability paid off as he ran down shots and finally got a forehand volley UE wide by Raonic to lead 5-4. The 29-year-old Frenchman served out to 15, finishing with his seventh ace – the same number as Raonic had in the one hour and 13-minute contest.
A quick synopsis of the match might simply be that Monfils is totally dialed in after five matches to win the title last week in Washington and now four to reach the semifinals in Toronto, while Raonic was a ways off the level that had taken him to the Wimbledon final 19 days earlier. That could be due to his time off after the success at the All England Club but was more likely attributable to his first two comfortable, straight-set wins over No. 70-ranked Yen-Hsun Lu and No. 147 Jared Donaldson. They were probably too easy and didn’t do anything to prepare him for the step up in intensity he needed against the revelation that is Monfils at the moment.
The full house crowd of 10,985 was solidly behind Raonic but also ready to recognize the brilliance of Monfils, who worked with small margins and made them into big differences.
It was remarkable to note that both players won 82 percent of first-serve points and 50 per cent on second serve points – although Raonic only played 12 of the latter to 28 for the hard-pressed Monfils.
The most crucial stat was obvious. Both had four break points during the match – Monfils converted two and Raonic none.
“I looked at the numbers,” Raonic said, “I lost 12 points on my serve and eight of those were in two games that I played poorly. That’s what it came down to. I had a few looks on his serve and didn’t make the most of them. Out of the eight points I lost in those two service games, I think five of them were my own forehand mistakes – quite poor mistakes.”
There’s really no point in trying to find astute tactical moves that Monfils made during the match when it mainly came down to Raonic misfiring forehands at key junctures. But the Frenchman certainly deserves credit for his grit and determination especially, particularly in view of the fact that he was playing his ninth match in 10 days.
He basically red-lined his game, going for first serves and second serves and playing aggressively in rallies when the moment was right. “I served good and I didn’t panic when he attacked me,” Monfils said succinctly summing up his performance.
The No. 14-ranked Frenchman (above during his match with David Goffin on Thursday) has struggled with injuries over his career and missed nine Grand Slam events between 2007 and 2016. “I feel good and I feel very strong with my body,” he said after the match. “When I’m good with my body I’m tough to beat.”
In recent years he has been bothered by right shoulder, left wrist and back issues – but most often it has been knee problems. He also missed this year’s Roland Garros with a virus that carried over into Wimbledon and a five-set loss to compatriot Jeremy Chardy in the first round.
A re-dedication to tennis in 2016 and improved fitness is at the root of his recent fine form. It’s a late blooming for a prodigy who won the first three legs of the junior Grand Slam in 2004 before falling short in the third round of the US Open while fighting injuries.
Monfils gives much of the credit for his improved fitness to his physio Gaetan Olivier. “I’ve said before that I’m getting hurt less because of Gaetan,” he said. “He has a way of working on recovery using Chinese medicine, which is different and helps me a lot. The other thing is that he does my fitness work so he really knows if I’m in shape or not in shape. It’s easier for him because he’s there when I’m working out and there when I’m recovering. He has changed a lot of things but, as I’ve said before, what they are is just between him and me.”
As for Raonic, he will take a brief break before preparing for the Masters 1000 in Cincinnati beginning on August 15.
It has been a hectic time for him returning to his hometown for Rogers Cup. There were many events outside the tennis, events that necessarily are more concentrated in the even years when the tournament is played in Toronto.
The Sobeys Stadium crowd was boisterous and did all it could to help him. “I was trying to get them involved,” Raonic said. “If I could have maybe been a bit more efficient – converted a few opportunities – I could have done a better job with that. But I have to say I’m grateful for the kind of reception I got throughout this entire week so far, three matches on court. Off the court as well, it’s been phenomenal. It’s a great honour to play in front of that kind of appreciation and respect from Canadians. It’s not something I get to do too often, so it’s a very special feeling.”
Raonic received encouraging messages from other athletes including hockey sensation Connor McDavid, 19, of the Edmonton Oilers and commented about that, “it’s just a testament to the culture of sport in Canada. I’m sure it happened that way when Mike Weir was a pioneer on the golf side.
“I’ve gotten some great support from current athletes, past athletes, and it’s been very endearing and very special because athletes are the people I look up to the most.”
“He will be there to help me over the next training block before Cincinnati,” Raonic said about McEnroe. “And then he’ll be there (US Open) in a similar role like he had at Wimbledon, consulting, because he’s obviously doing the commentating throughout the US Open.”
A year ago, struggling with a back issue, Raonic lost in the Rogers Cup opening round to monster-serving Ivo Karlovic. So the 180 points he earned for reaching the quarter-finals will boost his ranking and he will move up from No. 7 to No. 6 unless Kei Nishikori defeats Stan Wawrinka in the Rogers Cup semifinals starting at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Always driven and eager to improve, Raonic declared, “I’ll get in better shape. I’ll get all these things in order so I can hopefully be playing better, first for Cincinnati and then hopefully another step forward come US Open time.”
That step forward could mean another rankings boost because he lost in the first round of Cincinnati a year ago and in the third round at the 2015 US Open.
Nestor/Pospisil in final four
With the Rio Olympics looming, there were nine different all-national doubles teams entered in the 2016 Rogers Cup draw. In that regard, Canada could be said to have scored a win over Czech Republic on Friday night as Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil advanced to the semifinals with a 6-3, 7-6(6) win over Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek.
Also making it to the semifinals on Friday were Romanians Florin Mergea and Horia Tecau while Americans Bob and Mike Bryan joined Czechs Berdych and Stepanek on the sidelines.
There was a little waver for Pospisil and Nestor on the brink of winning the first set on Friday night in the Grandstand Court. Serving for the set at 5-3, Pospisil hit three double faults in the game including two in a row when he and Nestor held set point. But on the third set point, Pospisil delivered – with an ace.
The second set was decided by a tiebreak. Nestor and Pospisil got a mini-break on the opening point when Pospisil belted a clean service return winner on the way to his side taking a 3-0 lead. But the Czechs got the mini-break back to 3-3 on a low service return by Stepanek that Nestor couldn’t handle on the volley. Finally, after Pospisil volleyed right at Stepanek to make the lead 7-6, Nestor volleyed low and Pospisil easily put away the lob reply to give the home team the win just as crowds attempted to get into the stadium after the Milos Raonic – Gael Monfils match had ended on Centre Court.
“We fought hard today,” Nestor said about the match against Berdych and Stepanek, who was Nestor’s partner from January to May this year. “There were a lot of close games. Maybe we squandered a few opportunities. But it was important to win in the end because I thought we were the better team. We created more chances and so it’s always nice to win those kinds of matches. It would have been a tough one to lose.”
Next for the sixth-seeded pair will be No. 2 seeds Jamie Murray of Great Britain and Bruno Soares of Brazil. In January at the Australian Open, Murray and Soares beat Nestor and then partner Stepanek 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 in the final.
Pospisil, who has struggled in singles this year, looked comfortable in doubles on Thursday and Friday evenings, particularly in volleying any balls above the net and within his swing range.
“He’s really easy to play with,” Pospisil, 26, said about partnering the nearly 44-year-old (in 37 days) Nestor. “You never feel stressed on the court. You never feel like he’s putting pressure on you. He’s a great, unbelievable partner, taking care of everything he needs to do.”
Saturday’s evening semifinal will be in Centre Court at 5:50 p.m. before the 8 p.m. singles semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils. “We’re excited to play on Centre Court,” Pospisil said. “We like playing at home in front of big crowds. Hopefully a lot of people will come out and support us. We’ll try to use the energy of the crowd as much as we can to our advantage.”
Nestor, who lost in the Rogers Cup final to Bob and Mike Bryan last year while partnering Edouard Roger-Vasselin, is playing in a remarkable 28th Rogers Cup/Canadian Open doubles event. He has won it twice – in 2000 with Sébastien Lareau from Montreal and in 2008 with Nenad Zimonjic of Serbia.
Pospisil is only participating for the fifth time and lost in the first round of his previous three occasions – with Jack Sock (2014), Frank Dancevic (2012) and Adil Shamasdin (2011).
No penalty for Kyrgios
The ATP World Tour has reviewed Nick Kyrgios’ behaviour during his opening round Rogers Cup last Monday and decided it will not be sanctioning him.
Here is what was written in this blog after Kyrgios’ 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-3 loss to Canadian junior Denis Shapovalov:
It was not the easiest of matches for Shapovalov because Kyrgios performed erratically, half-heartedly and unprofessionally throughout the encounter. At one point Sportsnet courtside reporter Arash Madani revealed that Kyrgios had said to him in an unlikely exchange, “I just don’t want to be here anymore.” A little later Madani reported that the 21-year-old Aussie said to his courtside support group, “I’m going home. I don’t know about you but I’m going home.”
Sportsnet commentator Jimmy Arias, with Kyrgios playing total hit-and-miss, cavalier tennis (18 double faults mostly because his second serves were hit as hard as first serves) said, “Shapovalov should take a seat and let Kyrgios serve and see who wins the game.” That was the second game of the final set and eventually the dra-out game went to Shapovalov – on yet another a double fault from Kyrgios to make the score 2-0.
Kyrgios, 21, doesn’t seem to be cleaning up his act. On Friday he posted a GIF on his Instagram account showing a buddy playing tennis while he provided a sarcastic commentary sprinkled with at least four uses of the F-word.
Planting the seeds
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 29, 2016
After each summer’s event, Wimbledon’s Centre Court gets back to basics – and a fresh new lawn is seeded for following year’s ‘Championships.’
NOTE: No blog on Saturday back for the finals on Sunday.