Milos Raonic is into the Australian Open quarter-finals for the fifth time in the last six years. He did it Sunday in Margaret Court Arena with a 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 victory over Marin Cilic.
The play was all Cilic’s way in the early going – he won the first 13 points on his serve and had two breaks point on the Raonic serve at 3-all. But he missed a service return and then watched as a 208 km/hr ace streaked past him.
Gradually Raonic, ranked No. 35 and seeded No. 32, started making inroads and he broke when the now-No. 39-ranked Cilic served to stay in the set trailing 5-4. The 31-year-old Croat double-faulted on the first point and then made two forehand unforced errors to make it love-40. Two points later a forced forehand error gave Raonic the set 6-4 in 42 minutes, as well as a major step up toward the quarter-finals.
The next step came in the second game of the second set when he broke Cilic with an outstanding backhand down-the-line service return winner on break point. He then held serve the rest of the way, wrapping up the set 6-3 at the one hour and 23-minute mark.
The third set proved more problematic with Raonic facing two set points serving down 5-4. As he is used to doing, he geared up and belted three aces in a row – of 225 km/hr, 210 km/hr and 211km/hr and then finished the game with a forehand winner.
That proved to be Cilic’s last stand. He seemed to lose conviction after failing to break – he was 0/4 in break chances for the match while Raonic was 3/8 – and was broken himself to 15 in the following game. Raonic then served out to 15, putting an exclamation mark on the two-hour and 19-minute match with his 35th ace.
Raonic’s first serve percentage was impressive at 73, he won 80 per cent of first-serve points and 56 per cent on second serve. Above Cilic got no solace from his Hawk-Eye challenge – it confirmed that it was yet another Raonic ace.
So Raonic is through in fine form to a quarter-final against seven-time champion Novak Djokovic. His first two opponents, No. 150 Lorenzo Giustino and No. 36 Cristian Garin, weren’t necessarily the most challenging. But he has now, back-to-back, beaten two players with Aussie Open pedigree – last year’s semi-finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas (beating Roger Federer in the fourth round) and 2018 runner-up Cilic.
Also Raonic has once again, similar to Roger Federer, demonstrated that he can play at a high level with little tournament preparation/toughness. Prior to Melbourne Park 2020, his only match since October 30th last year was a first-round loss three weeks ago in Doha, Qatar, to No. 81-ranked Corentin Moutet of France.
“It was a roller-coaster,” Raonic said after finishing the match with 55 winners and 23 unforced errors. “He was playing better than me for most of the first set and I got lucky to get that through and then made a bit of a run with it. Then I got in a little bit of trouble but I’m just happy to be out here playing well and feeling good. I haven’t played much over the last few years so it means a lot to me.”
The match didn’t have the variety of the Tsitsipas match – with more points ending on serve or at the baseline. There were few opportunities for Raonic to show his volley (3/7 at the net) and overhead skills as he had two days earlier.
“I did a lot of things really well,” he said, including having 59 percent of his serves unreturned. “I had the idea of how I wanted to play and I was happy I could execute.”
His fitness, after six hard weeks of training, is holding up. “I feel the little things everybody feels playing four three-set matches within a week,” he said. “But I’m happy that I’m not, at this point, having any concern, anything I know that can’t be fixed with a day of treatment or a good recovery session.”
Raonic has been working with coach Mario Tudor (above in black cap and white T-shirt) directly or indirectly for more than a year and a half. “He’s been with me for a while now,” Raonic said about the 41-year-old Croat. “He’s incredibly loyal and we just continue plugging away day to day.
“We communicate well, and we don’t get in each other’s way throughout many weeks in a row on the road.”
Raonic and Tudor will now be discussing Djokovic, trying to find the answer to someone who has beaten him more times than any other opponent – nine times without a loss.
Only twice in those nine matches has Raonic won a set. But one was in their last meeting – a Djokovic 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 win in the quarter-finals in Cincinnati in 2018.
“At least putting in a lot of returns,” Raonic said about what has happened any time he has had some success against Djokovic. “He sort of feels like he has to work in those games.
“I have got to serve well. I don’t know if it was the last time we played, but in Cincinnati I had more opportunities than most times. I think I was up a break in each set. So I have got to be sharp in those moments if I can create them, and if they arise.”
Djokovic defeated No. 14 seed Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in Rod Laver Arena on Sunday and was pleased with his game. “I’ve had a couple of fantastic matches in a row (Schwartzman and No. 144 Tatsuma Ito) centre court the last two rounds,” he said. “I felt more confident going through the ball, hitting serves really well. All and all it was a very solid performance.”
When Djokovic was asked about how the vaunted Raonic serve stacks up against other big servers such as 6-foot-10 John Isner and 6-foot-11 Ivo Karlovic, he gave one of his frequent long-winded but informative answers. “Well, I feel like Raonic moves better than Isner and Karlovic,” he said. “I mean, he’s not as tall (6-foot-5) as those two guys.They’re 6’10’’ or something, two metres-10. They’re the tallest players to ever play the sport of tennis.
“Obviously it’s a huge advantage when you hit serves from that height. You can hit any angle, anything you really want. That puts a lot of pressure on your opponent.
“But of course, that also has some disadvantages in terms of movement. If the returner gets the ball back in play, then I think Raonic is better than those two guys.
“But I feel like maybe you can read his serve better than Isner and Karlovic. I don’t want to say it’s slightly slower, but just a little bit of a different toss, different technique. You can probably get some looks at second serves or break points and stuff like that, maybe a bit more than the other two guys.
“Again it’s such a minor difference that you don’t really notice it so much. But on the court it makes a big difference.”
That may have been a little dig at Raonic to stir things up a bit. If it was he may have replied in kind when he was asked if Djokovic, the consensus best returner in the game, was by far the best he had faced. “I think Rafa is close,” Raonic replied. “I think it’s two very different things. I think Rafa puts in as many returns but you sort of have a chance to swing away at the first one.
“Novak, his is a little bit more different because he goes straight through the middle so he takes away the first angle. And he stands close so there’s not as much time to sort of organize yourself.
“They both have made a hell of a career doing well at that end of the court and punishing players when they let up.”
It will be interesting to see whether the match on Tuesday is in the afternoon, when it will be warmer – 23 degrees and a 5 per cent chance of showers – and quicker conditions, or at night when it’s cooler and slower.
Raonic would probably prefer the faster afternoon session. But there’s a chance Roger Federer, after beating Marton Fucsovics on Sunday night, will return to Rod Laver Arena as the feature evening match against No. 100-ranked Tennys Sandgren, with Raonic and Djokovic in the afternoon.
At the end of Sunday’s media conference, a reporter jokingly asked Raonic if the colour of his shirt can be referred to as ‘tennis ball yellow.’ “I don’t think so,” he answered with a smile. “I don’t think that’s what the New Balance designers have said.”
The forehand hit by Gabriela Dabrowski in the picture above was good for a winner right between American Hayley Carter and Brazilian Luisa Stefani during the doubles third-round match in 1573 Arena on Sunday. Dabrowski and partner Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia needed every good shot they could muster in the third set on their way to a 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 victory.
The Canadian/Latvian pair struggled against the unheralded but game USA/Brazil combo. They had lost 10 of the previous 13 games when they trailed 4-2 in the final set.
But they picked up the tempo with the most of the damage being done by Ostapenko. Her power-packed shots in the backhand to backhand rallies with Carter almost made you feel sorry for the shell-shocked 24-year-old American. Ostapenko’s ground-stroke velocity was clearly a cut above the other three players. As for Dabrowski, she was alert at the net and contributed with her volleying and timely poaches.
In the quarter-finals the No. 6 seeds will face fourth-seeded Barbora Krejcikova and Katarina Siniakova of the Czech Republic or 16th-seeded Sofia Kenin and Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the U.S.
Mélodie Collard was in a good mood doing a selfie with a young fan after her opening-round singles match in the Australian Open junior girls event on Saturday. The 16-year-old from Gatineau, Que., defeated Annerly Poulos, 17, of Australia, 6-4, 6-0 to set up a second round on Monday against 17-year-old Aubane Droguet of France.
In doubles on Sunday, Collard and Jada Bui from Pickering, Ont., were beaten 6-4, 6-2 by Bai Zhuoxuan of China and Yang Ya-Yi of Taipei.
On Saturday, the 17-year Bui was ousted in singles, defeated 7-6(4), 6-4 by 18-year-old Alexandra Vecic of Germany.
Rafael Nadal is a brand ambassador for KIA automobiles, the major sponsor of the Australian Open. This ‘mini-Rafa’ is located alongside an ‘autographed’ KIA car in Federation Square right in the centre of Melbourne.
NOTE: No blog Monday, back with Raonic – Djokovic on Tuesday.