Top Canadians Milos Raonic and Genie Bouchard appear to be in fine form with the 2015 Australian Openjust five days (it’s already Wednesday Down Under) away.
Both are not playing tournaments this week, preferring to rest and fine tune their games in Melbourne ahead of the first Grand Slam of the year.
On Monday, Bouchard was in Rod Laver Arena in mid-afternoon practicing with her interim coach Diego Ayala, an Argentine who was with her in her younger years at the Saviano High Performance Tennis academy in Florida. Also keeping an eye on her were Canadian Fed Cup captain Sylvain Bruneau and her trainer Scott Brynes.
She had a decent preparation at Hopman Cup in Perth last week – losing 6-0, 6-4 to Lucie Safarova in her first match before beating an off-form Serena Williams 6-2, 6-1 and then Flavia Pennetta 6-3, 6-4.
But Bouchard failed to make the impression that Raonic did in reaching the Brisbane International final where he pushed Roger Federer to the limit before losing 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-4.
There’s no question his level has gone up a notch or two, and much of that is attributable to his off-season training. On Monday, Canadian Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau told about how Louis Borfiga, Tennis Canada’s man in charge of the National Training Centre in Montreal, had visited Raonic during the off-season and observed the same thing – there has been a noticeable step up in his game.
His serve was solid in Brisbane but it was his forehand that was truly remarkable. Both against Kei Nishikori in the semifinals – a very tight 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 7-6(2) victory – and Federer in the final, there were periods when neither opponent appeared able to handle the concussive power of the Raonic barrage off the forehand side. At one point, a frustrated Federer actually swore (mildly) in French in frustration at the consistent depth and brutal velocity of Raonic’s forehand. He was being overwhelmed.
There also seemed to be an improvement in the Raonic volley and just generally in his management of his movement on court.
After losing to Federer, Raonic spoke about not getting discouraged when he was down a set and 2-0 to the great Swiss. “I think it just shows the development I’ve been able to make over the last little while. You put me in the same situation a few months and weeks ago and I think I could be out of the stadium pretty quickly.
“The progress I’ve been making over the past six weeks – physically as a tennis player, technically, and just the way I go about things even mentally, I’m happy with that. I feel like I’m going to get better over the next eight or nine days.”
His co-coach (sharing the job with his own former player Ivan Ljubicic) Riccardo Piatti told the French sporting daily L’Equipe, “I’ve coached a lot of players in the past, but I’ve never seen an off-season preparation as intense,” Piatti said about Raonic’s four weeks of training in Monte Carlo in November and December. “I’m not at all surprised by his level of play because he was impressive in the off-season. He’s made a lot of progress.”
The sheer speed and depth of Raonic’s forehand on Sunday versus Federer had Channel Seven commentators Todd Woodbridge, John Fitzgerald and Geoff Masters almost dumbfounded. At times they were just laughing at how ridiculously hard Raonic hit the ball.
Federer was very much aware of the difference in Raonic, and post-final had this to say about him: “I like seeing guys improving. I like seeing him play maybe sometimes differently than he normally would. I think he’s definitely changed his way of playing since he started with Riccardo and Ivan. It’s interesting to see him adapting and changing to that coaching staff.
“Then I think the fitness is something everybody can control themselves. He seems to being doing a good job there as well. Only time will tell. (It’s the) same with me about Melbourne and the same with him about the year. Clearly we’re both feeling good about our chances for Australia, but only one guy can win. The other guys are going to go home with a loss there. It’s a frustrating sport sometimes.
“He’s going to have a good year. He’s already had a very consistent season this year, but I think he’ll probably step it up a bit.”
Looking ahead, Raonic said he feels different than 2012 when he came into the Australian Open after winning the ATP 250 event in Chennai, India. “I didn’t feel like going into the Australian Open with the same confidence and belief that I can really make something big happen there,” he said about 2012 comparing it with 2015.
Raonic was probably as charming as he has ever been during the presentation ceremony on Sunday evening, joking to Federer about his 1,000th match win after the p.a. announcer listed the world No. 2’s many career accomplishments during the pre-match match warm-up, “I honestly thought you were playing for your 2,000th match win tonight.”
Later, he gave one of his more elaborate explanations about the now–trademark sleeve on his right arm, saying, “it started after I got hurt here last year. I didn’t play for many weeks. I started playing in Indian Wells. And just because I wasn’t able to play for a while my arm was sore, so I was using a cream on my arm for massaging and stuff.
“I had a bad rash come Miami time, so I had the option of playing with long sleeves and, being a basketball fan, I saw that they play with compressions sleeves. I thought it was a better way to cover up.
“Since then it stuck around. Some of my team believe that it helps on the compression on the muscles. For me it’s just a habit.”
The only real area of concern for Raonic at the moment is his inability to break serve over his last three matches against Sam Groth, Nishikori and Federer. He only broke serve once (second set vs. Federer). Ultimately that match came down to five break points each in the final set – Federer saved all five (making a first serve each time) while Raonic saved four of five – the one that got away coming on match point.
Bouchard, (above left to right with Byrnes, Bruneau and Ayala) seems to be rounding into form. Her decisive loss in her first match in Perth can probably be partly attributed to Safarova getting a reward for her hard work in the off-season with Canadian coach Rob Steckley. The win over Williams was tainted by abysmal play by Williams, although Bouchard deserves credit for not giving her an opening once she had taken control. The convincing 6-3, 6-4 victory over Pennetta, ranked No. 12, was probably the most representative of Bouchard’s current form.
It will be interesting to see how Ayala (facing camera above with Bruneau) will help her. But there will also be Bruneau’s steadying presence – he was with Bouchard at all the Grand Slams last year and gets along well with her.
One thing that will be strange for Bouchard is the fact that former coach Nick Saviano will be in Australia with Sloane Stephens, another of the young players developed at his academy in Plantation, Florida. While Bouchard went from No. 32 to No. 7 in 2014, a slumping Stephens started at No. 12 but wound up with just one match win at Wimbledon and the US Open and seemed to have lost her way on tour. (Seeded No. 5 at the WTA event in Hobart, Tasmania, this week – Stephens was ousted 6-3, 6-1 on Tuesday by Heather Watson of Britain.)
Vasek Pospisil, a direct entry into the Australian Open along with Raonic and Bouchard, won all three of his singles matches at the Hopman Cup last week – beating Adam Pavlasek of Czech Republic 7-6(5), 6-2, John Isner 6-3, 7-6(4) and a petulant, sulky Fabio Fognini 6-0, 6-3.
Surprisingly, the reigning Wimbledon doubles champion (with Jack Sock) lost all three of his mixed doubles outings with Bouchard.
But he stayed on the winning track in singles on Tuesday in Sydney at the ATP 250 event there, beating No. 43-ranked Andreas Seppi of Italy 6-3, 7-6(4) in just an hour and 12 minutes.
Currently ranked No. 55, Pospisil will next play fourth–seeded Frenchman Julien Benneteau for a spot in the quarter-finals.
A year ago, Pospisil defeated Aussies Sam Groth and Matthew Ebden at the Australian Open, but his back flared up big-time and he had to withdraw from his third round against eventual champion Stan Wawrinka.
AUSSIE OPEN QUALIFYING
The men’s qualifying at the Australian Open begins on Wednesday and Frank Dancevic is the only Canadian in the field – Peter Polansky recently underwent wrist surgery and is in a rehab phase.
Dancevic, seeded No. 27, has drawn No. 184-ranked Alex Kuznetsov. They have never met on the ATP tour but Dancevic, 30, holds a 2-1 career head-to-head advantage at the Challengers and Futures level. But the 27-year-old American won their last meeting at a 2014 Challenger event in Charlottesville, Va., by a 7-6(2), 2-6, 7-6(4) score. Dancevic, who qualified last year at Melbourne Park before losing in the extreme heat in the famous “Snoopy” match against Benoit Paire, currently ranks No. 145.
The women’s qualifying starts on Thursday and Canadians Sharon Fichman, Gabriela Dabrowski and Francoise Abanda will be in the draw.
LONG RANGE FORECAST
The beach life in Melbourne is centered around Port Phillip Bay. Here, in the early evening on Monday, it was still plenty warm enough for swimmers to have a dip.
By Tuesday, the clouds had moved in on a rainy, overcast day and temperatures had dropped to 22 degrees. They are projected to hang around there for the next six days until the Australian Open begins on Monday.
In last week’s Tebbutt Tuesday, AccuWeather.com had projected no temperature higher than 27 degrees during the Australian Open fortnight. That has changed this week with highs of 30 and 32 degrees forecast for the first Friday and Saturday of the event. As well, on eight of the 14 days temperatures are expected to be 27 degrees or higher.
BTW – the average yearly high/low for the entire two weeks of the Australian Open is 26/14. The latter number is an indication why there’s generally good sleeping weather in the capital of the Australian state of Victoria.
DJOKOVIC IN ROD LAVER ARENA
Novak had a mid-afternoon hit in Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday. He generally did not look like a happy camper and didn’t kibitz at all with his camp (see below) during a courtside sit-down during the session.
NEWS FROM HOME
With a little help from a certain Canadian reporter – and pictures by Wilson racquet sports heavy hitter Doug Coombs – this item appeared on the Australian Open’s Facebook page last Sunday.
MELBOURNE POST CARD
This bird, a sulfur-crested cockatoo, was with these two dudes on the main Melbourne thoroughfare of Swanston Street on Monday.
NOTE: Tebbutt Tuesday will be back Friday for an update on the qualifying event as well as a look at the main draws for the 2015 Australian Open.