Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were both out of the 2017 Australian Open before the quarter-finals. By the time they play their next Grand Slam tournament, Roland Garros beginning May 28th, they will both have turned 30. Murray’s birthday is May 15th and Djokovic’s May 22nd .
There’s nothing saying players can’t thrive from 30 onward but 35-year-old Roger Federer is currently playing his 20th Grand Slam event since hitting 30 and has just won a single Grand Slam title in that time – Wimbledon 2012. Rafael Nadal is playing only his second Grand Slam since becoming 30 and – no real surprise – has not added to his Grand Slam total of 14 since his birthday last June 3rd.
Wednesday night’s quarter-final between Nadal and Milos Raonic is a golden opportunity for Raonic to make a statement for generation next against an opponent who won his first Grand Slam title at 19 in 2005 and has ranked No. 1 for a total of 141 weeks since that breakthrough.
Raonic reached No. 3 last November 21st and has established himself as the player most likely to bust up a Big Four hegemony that has only been interrupted in recent years by Stan Wawrinka’s titles at the Australian, French and US Opens in 2014, 2015 and 2016 and by Marin Cilic at the 2014 US Open.
The head-to-head between Raonic and Nadal is 6-2 for the No. 9-ranked Spaniard but Raonic has won two of the past three, including 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in Brisbane 19 days ago. That was a stunning match in many ways because Nadal dominated until Raonic saved two break points at 2-all in the second set and then gradually but inexorably took over the match. By the third set, and especially in the last few games, Raonic was playing lights out – pounding ground strokes and belting serves with such force that Nadal looked defenseless. It was as though he had no answer for the Raonic power, which he actually did not.
Raonic, who turned 26 a month ago, reached a level that night against a quality opponent that suggested he can beat anyone in that kind of form.
He first really showed signs of that a year ago in the Aussie Open semifinal when he dominated Murray for three sets before a right adductor injury diminished him and he lost in five. Then there was the three-hour and 38-minute extravaganza at the 2016 ATP World Tour Finals in November when he came within a match point of beating Murray. Both of those matches were on big occasions, which the ATP 250 Brisbane is not, but it nonetheless showcased a free-flowing Raonic and just how awesome he can be.
Looking over Raonic and Nadal’s four matches so far at Melbourne Park, they have both only lost serve six times – Raonic’s all in his last two matches against Gilles Simon and Roberto Bautista Agut.
“I watched their match in Brisbane a couple of weeks ago where I thought Milos had his number and played really well,” said prominent Australian broadcaster Todd Woodbridge, a nine-time Wimbledon doubles champion. “I think this is a different story because Rafa has improved. This tournament he seems to have grown in confidence. I think the work that he did at the end of last year has really paid dividends. He bounced back beautifully physically from his five-setter (against Alexander Zverev in the third round).
“And for Milos I think this is a step to take in self-belief. He’s No. 3 in the world, he’s ranked higher. I think he’s the man who has more pressure on him coming into this match, interestingly enough. He’s the one that should win but I’m not sure how he’s going to cope with that stress, that pressure in that position against a champion such as Nadal.”
Woodbridge did not want to give the impression he was under-estimating Raonic, adding, “one of the things that I have said over the past six months is that I think Milos is the player that’s ready to win a major championship of all of that generation. He’s continuously improved his game, he’s added new dimensions. He’s gone out and sought the expertise – whether it be (John) McEnroe or in this case a (Richard) Krajicek that can add another piece to his game. I think he’s ready to do it in terms of the prep he’s put in. But is he ready to do it here and is Rafa ready to give it up? That’s the other part I think is going to be fascinating watching this match.”
Thomas Johansson, the 41-year-old Swede who won the Australian Open in 2002, will be a keen observer of Raonic – Nadal in Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m. (3:30 a.m. ET in Canada). “I think both are looking very good,” he said. “I have to say I’m very impressed with Milos so far in the tournament. I think he looks like a potential winner of this event. He’s shown now that he’s a solid top-five player in the world and he has beaten everybody so I really look forward to that match because it’s going to be a different match-up – Milos is going to be very aggressive and Nadal is going to do a lot of running.”
Raonic sounded decidedly optimistic about facing Nadal on the heels of the victory in Brisbane. “We both tried to be aggressors early on,” he said about that quarter-final. “I fought through a difficult moment midway through that second set. Then I thought I had it pretty handily after that. I broke toward the end of that second set – broke right away in the third. I had a lot of love-thirty games. I had a lot of break chances (while) holding quite easily.
“I found the tipping point that I was looking for in that match. Obviously it’s very within me to find those solutions again, I believe.”
Nadal, who always downplays his chances, noted about Brisbane, “he beat me but at the same time it’s true that I have been close. A set up and important break point and I had a passing shot, no?
“It’s tough, he’s an opponent who makes you feel that you’re playing with a lot of pressure all the time because his serve is huge and he’s playing very aggressive from the baseline. I need to be very focused with my serve and play aggressive. If I am not playing aggressive, then I am dead because he plays aggressive.
“So it’s going to be a very tough match, no?”
Yes, at least Raonic hopes so. Examining the players who have upset Nadal at Grand Slams the past two years – except for Dustin Brown at Wimbledon in 2015 – they have all been able to hit big and challenge the redoubtable Nadal forehand. That list includes Lucas Pouille, Fernando Verdasco, Fabio Fognini, Novak Djokovic, Tomas Berdych and Nick Kyrgios. If Raonic can pressure the forehand as he was able to after the first set in Brisbane, it’s hard not to see him added to the names mentioned above.
But he has to do it over a best-of-five set format, and it’s their first meeting in a Grand Slam. While that’s a tall order, Raonic has the ability to pulverize the ball on his serve and off the ground and break Nadal’s spirit. Of late, nerves have crept into Nadal’s game more so than in the past. If Raonic can get him doubting it could mean a trip for him to the Aussie Open semifinals for the second year in a row.
ANDREESCU WINS IN DOUBLES
Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., and Carson Branstine of the U.S. defeated Chen Pei Hsuan of China and Naho Sato of Japan 4-6, 6-2, [10-7] in second round junior girls doubles play on Tuesday.
“They liked us hitting hard the way we did but we finally pulled out the win,” Andreescu said about the plucky, diminutive Chinese/Japanese pair of 16-year-olds.
Branstine, 16, is from California but has a Canadian mother and will officially become a Canadian player as soon as her Canadian passport comes through. She’s already part of the program at the National Training Centre in Montreal.
There was an appreciable height difference between the 5-foot-6 Andreescu and the 5-foot-11 Branstine and their opponents when they shook hands at the net on Court 10.
In the quarter-finals, the third-seeded Andreescu and Branstine will face unseeded Ali Collins, 16, of Britain and Jule Niemeier, 17, of Germany.
In Wednesday singles, Andreescu, seeded seventh, will play Chinese wild card Yuan Chengyiyi in the round-of-16. “I went and watched her match yesterday,” said Andreescu, 16, about Yuan. “She hits the ball really hard so I’ll have to be ready for her pace.”
In mixed doubles on Tuesday, Gabriela Dabrowski and her partner Rohan Bopanna of India reached the quarter-finals with a 6-4, 5-7, [10-3] win over Chan Hao-Ching of Taipei and Lukas Kubot of Poland. On Wednesday, they will play for a spot in the semifinals against the second seeds – Sania Mirza of India and Ivan Dodig of Croatia.
AUSTRALIA POST CARD
Some people are afraid of Australian spiders, especially the bigger Huntsman variety. But this orb spider, busy working its magic last Sunday night in the Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills, seems fairly inoffensive. That’s certainly a fine web and that spider is probably salivating over the possibility of soon having grilled Aussie fly on the ‘barbie.’