Photo: Ben Solomon/Tennis Australia
Milos Raonic has finally become the tennis player that he has always wanted to be, and that he has worked hard to become. That’s even more obvious after his 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Gael Monfils in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open on Wednesday night.
The improvements are there for all to see – his movement is more dynamic and balanced, his baseline play is way more consistent and he has taken his volleying to a completely new level.
“I have to be happy with the way I dealt with things,” he said after dispatching the 23rd-seeded Frenchman in two hours and 17 minutes, “how I played, how I backed up the performance (against Stan Wawrinka) two days ago.”
Raonic has excelled so far in 2016 – winning the title in Brisbane two weeks ago and now running through five matches at Melbourne Park, five matches when he has always looked like the winner, even when No. 4 seed Wawrinka pushed him to five sets in the round-of-16 on Monday.
“His cross-court forehand was really sharp and his inside/out forehand is still as good as ever,” said Canadian Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau about Raonic. “He was breaking the sidelines short and with power. He had Gael scrambling and running – and that’s what he’s best at.
“Milos played a smart match. He paced himself well, putting in a lot of returns and hurting with his weapons, which are the serve and the forehand. He looks so confident and calm and poised.”
The match was uncomplicated. Raonic started out dominating the baseline rallies with Monfils, got a break with the help of two double faults in the fourth game from a shaky Monfils and took the set 6-3.
In the second set, Raonic dipped a bit – starting the sixth game with a double fault and then making three forehand errors to drop serve. That was enough for Monfils to take it 6-3.
Raonic basically seized control for good with a break in the second game of the third set to 2-0 and then another to 4-2 in the fourth set.
The match was played with the Rod Laver Arena roof closed after scattered thunder showers threatened the Melbourne area. “Who knows how much of a factor indoor was,” Raonic said in his post-match on-court interview with Channel Seven’s Jim Courier, “but it definitely gave my mind some peace.”
Monfils didn’t have too much to say after the match, but he did note, “Milos’ second serve was very hard to return and he played well from the baseline, especially his backhand.”
The second serve has been a prominent feature of his success in Australia. Time and time again he has gotten out of what seemed like dicey situations thanks to effective second serving. On the stat sheet, Raonic won 84 per cent of first serve points and 62 per cent of second serve points, which is a pretty potent combination for any server.
At the net he was again efficient with his newfound mastery on the volley – winning 31 of 46 points or 67 per cent.
While there has been much publicity about former world No. 1 and 1998 French Open champion, Carlos Moya, joining the Raonic team, Riccardo Piatti has been the ever-present mentor – from the spring of 2014 sharing the duties with Croat Ivan Ljubicic, whom he coached to No. 3 in the world.
He is still around and was with Raonic in the off-season after Ljubicic split when much of what has blossomed in Australia was worked on.
Piatti, an Italian who hasn’t quite mastered the English language, was lavish in his praise of Raonic after the match Wednesday evening. “Milos is working 10 hours every day, it’s quite normal that he’s improving,” Piatti said. “It’s normal if someone is working that they’re getting better and better.”
About the most important thing that happened in the off-season when they trained, Piatti said, “it was that he understood that the body was ready for the goal that we had when we started practicing. He had (injury) problems last year and we started to work a lot on the defensive part and him coming to the net. And he improved quite a bit in that part. It’s quite normal him playing like this. When he had the operation (May 11, 2015) on his foot, he was No. 4 in the world. He was not No. 20!
“Last year Milos lost important matches in important tournaments. I told him that to beat Wawrinka in an ATP 1000 is different than to beat him here in a Slam. You need to win here in a Slam. If you win in a Slam it means more for the player because normally in best-of-five the best player wins – and they know that and that’s why Grand Slams are more important than the other tournaments.”
Returning to Raonic’s work ethic, Piatti, who has coached other top players such as Novak Djokovic and Richard Gasquet, said, “I never worked with a player working for 10 hours. Maybe Djokovic was more focused. It’s so nice to have a player like Milos. I have a long career and I think he’s the best player that I had. And I’ve had a lot of players.”
What about Ljubicic, who is now part of the Roger Federer team? “Milos is more talented than Ivan,” Piatti said, “the serve and forehand, it’s quite difficult to find someone who hits the ball like him.”
Raonic spoke about Piatti (on extreme left in Raonic team picture from practice at Melbourne Park last week) and his contribution. “Riccardo is more the one that’s going to be doing the heavy work. Riccardo, at the end of the day, is as much of a coach as anybody on tour. He’s done it his whole life. He’s done it with so many different players.
“He likes to be there as well during the boring weeks in the middle of nowhere sitting six hours on the court. He’s going to be doing that kind of stuff.”
As for Moya, Raonic said, he is “just going to give me peace of mind, efficiency and maybe a process of work throughout tournaments.”
Known as a technical expert, Piatti believes his charge can win a Grand Slam title. “That’s the goal for him,” he said. “It was quite clear when we started and it continues to be clear. I think he’s going to achieve this goal – I hope now or maybe at the next one.”
Piatti had no qualms about Moya joining the team, more or less replacing Ljubicic who split with Raonic at the end of last season.
“When Milos’ manager told me and Milos asked me,” Piatti recalled, “I said Carlos is a good choice because I’ve know Carlos for a long time. Carlos has been No. 1 and won a Slam and he’s a nice person also. He’s an easy person and Milos needs an easy person around him.”
The Raonic team is now focused on Andy Murray, his opponent in Friday night’s semifinal at 7:30 p.m. (3:30 a.m. Thursday EST in Canada).
They have played six times and split those encounters, although the most memorable was Murray’s man-handling of a raw 21-year-old Raonic 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 in the round-of-16 at the 2012 US Open.
“I have certain aspects that I would like to manipulate and use my game in,” Raonic said about facing Murray. “I’m sure he’s going to try to do a lot of different things too. It’s going to be a race to see who can get in their comfort zone first.”
Murray, who outlasted David Ferrer 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-3 in Wednesday’s quarter-finals, said the following about Raonic: “He was unfortunate last year with some injuries. I played him in Madrid and he was struggling a little bit there.
“I think he had surgery on his foot and missed the French. He’s obviously fit and healthy now and playing well.”
It’s the second Grand Slam semifinal for Raonic, the first being 2014 when he lost 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to Federer at Wimbledon. “This moment alone is a great opportunity for me,” Raonic said. “I had a little bit of a disappointing semifinal two years ago and just want to change that story around and give myself another go with more experience. I’m a better player than I was two years ago.”
Raonic joins impressive company in the final four of the first Grand Slam of the year – Murray, his opponent on Friday, as well as Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer who play in the other semifinal on Thursday evening.
Davis Cup in Guadeloupe
Photo: Ben Solomon
After his loss to Milos Raonic in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, Gael Monfils had a fairly lengthy and candid talk with French reporters about the Davis Cup in Guadeloupe vs. Canada from March 4-6.
He said that all the players except Jo-Wilfried Tsonga were against the choice of Guadeloupe for the World Group opening round tie but that all the players – Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet, himself etc. – would go.
He said that it was not a “coherent” choice because it interferes with tournaments before and after – especially Montpellier and Marseille in France in February.
Monfils said that it was captain Yannick Noah’s choice but that the players disagreed with it. “But I respect his decision,” Monfils added.
Monfils’s father is from Guadeloupe and his mother from Martinique – so he feels an obligation to play. He also said that it would be good for Guadeloupe and the Guadeloupian culture for people there to see top-class tennis.
Nestor into final four
TV commentator and former doubles specialist Robbie Koenig likes to call Daniel Nestor “recession proof” and the 43-year-old Torontonian is proving him right. He and new partner Radek Stepanek moved into the doubles semifinals with a 6-4, 6-4 victory Tuesday over 14th seeds Treat Huey of the Philippines and Max Mirnyi. On Thursday, the unseeded Nestor-Stepanek team takes on No. 16 seeds Pablo Cuevas and Marcel Granollers.
The Uruguayan – Spanish duo upset ninth-seeded Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock 5-7, 6-1, 6-2 on Tuesday. After a decent first set, Pospisil and Sock struggled and really didn’t seem in sync as balls went down the middle between them and generally they weren’t sharp.
That prevented a Nestor – Pospisil semifinal featuring Canada’s Davis Cup doubles team.
About not playing Pospisil and Sock, Nestor said, “either opponent was going to be tough but obviously Vasek and Sock are one of the most dangerous teams out there. Too bad for them to lose today but it’s hard to say which team would be easier for us. I think both teams are very good and would be very difficult. We’re at the stage of the tournament when we really have to go for it – we’re not going to win playing safe. Especially me, at my age, I have to be quite aggressive and go for my shots.”
Talking about how he and Stepanek gel as a pairing, Nestor said, “we’ve played solid, we had some tough moments. In the third round (Pablo Andujar and Pablo Carreno Busta) we were down a set and break and almost two breaks…I think the thing we’ve been doing the best is using our experience and staying patient and not letting things bother us.”
Nestor has not been in a Grand Slam semifinal since he and Nenad Zimonjic were beaten by Eric Butorac and Raven Klaasen at Melbourne Park in 2014. “I’m really excited,” Nestor said. “I didn’t expect that much coming in. I’m going to do my best not to let nerves get in the way. I realize if I get nervous or whatever, I have no chance – just go for it and swing away.”
Nestor has been showing more emotions and said about being beside the 37-year-old Stepanek, “he’s leading and he does that very well. When someone has that energy, it’s easy to feed off of it. I haven’t necessarily had partners like that over the years. That’s why I really enjoy the experience. It’s similar to (Leander) Paes, we didn’t play as well but I did enjoy playing with him because he’s also very positive. You get more and more frustrated in certain situations as you age. I don’t have to deal with that with Radek because it’s all positive and we’re having a good time.”
There have been a lot of upsets in the doubles draw, and now the highest seeded team in the top half of the draw is Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares, seeded seventh, who now play Frenchmen Adrian Mannarino and Lucas Pouille.
“That’s how it is nowadays,” Nestor said about the topsy-turvy results. “I think it’s something like nine straight Grand Slams in doubles with different winners – something like that – so it’s not that surprising.”
Down day for juniors
Canada‘s brightest hopes in the Australian Open junior events – girls top seed Bianca Andreescu and boys No. 4 Félix Auger-Aliassime (above) – are out of the tournament.
Andreescu, who had to pull out of last week’s prep event in Traralgon with a thigh issue had to withdraw from her third-round match on Wednesday with a metatarsal stress fracture in her foot. Pre-tournament, the 15-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., had been bothered by thigh and other issues but had been hopeful she would be okay.
As for Auger-Aliassime, after looking solid in reaching the third round with a 6-2, 6-1 win over Tao Mu of China on Tuesday, he turned in a subpar performance on Wednesday, losing 6-3, 6-1 to No. 15 seeded Kenneth Raisma of Estonia.
The 1.89 m Estonian is left-handed and powdered with a lot of heavily-topspun shots, but Auger-Aliassime had a bad day and simply had trouble keeping his shots in the court. Raisma, 17, won 84 per cent of his first serve points compared to just 50 per cent for the 15-year-old Montrealer.
There are no Canadians left in the doubles after Andreescu, top-seeded with partner Charlotte Robillard-Millette of Blainville, Que., had to also withdraw from the girls doubles.
Australian post card
There’s a cabinet-maker in suburban Melbourne who likes to feed birds in the morning. These three scaley-breasted lorikeets (a.k.a. parrots) are among the visitors he usually attracts.
NOTE: No blog tomorrow – back for Raonic’s semifinal on Friday.