Milos Raonic overcame some perilous moments in his round-of-16 match at the Australian Open on Monday but managed to pull through 7-6(6), 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 over Roberto Bautista Agut.
There were several crisis points during the two hour and 52-minute match but two stood out – the first was a 5-1 deficit for Raonic in the opening-set tiebreak and the second was three break points he faced serving at 4-all in the third set.
Raonic fell behind 5-1 – two mini-breaks – in the tiebreak and was spraying balls all over the place and looking completely out of sorts. There was no sense that he could come back and win it until he chased down a Bautista Agut shot near the net and hit a forehand that tipped the tape and caught Bautista Agut off guard at the net. That made it 5-2, two aces got Raonic to 5-4 and then a forehand miss by Bautista Agut and matters were even. The worst was over and Raonic wrapped things up in style from 6-all with an overhead smash winner followed by a deft backhand cross-court passing shot winner.
About the tiebreak and the uncomfortable position he found himself in, Raonic later said, “I was just disappointed I was there – then all of a sudden I had a chance.”
Late in the third set, Bautista Agut seemed in the ascendancy again when Raonic faced three break points serving at 4-all. The first and third were saved with a 205 km/hr and 220 km/hr aces – bracketing what was a masterstroke. The two players engaged in an extended baseline rally, including a high looper from Bautista Agut that landed near the baseline, before Raonic uncorked his signature shot – an inside/out forehand screaming winner.
Serving at 4-5, 30-30 in the very next game, Bautista Agut blinked – hitting a double fault and then a forehand long on set point. A match full of momentum shifts had taken another one – the final one as it turned out even though no one knew it at the time.
Raonic started strong in the fourth set and soon led 5-0 on a seven-game run. He served out the match to love at 5-1, finishing with a winner on the forehand – his 75th of the day (33 of those were aces) to go with 55 unforced errors.
“I feel I was controlling the game and putting a lot of pressure on him,” the No. 14-ranked Bautista Agut would say afterward about the topsy-turvy contest. “Obviously I didn’t have luck on the 5-1 in the tiebreak with the ball touching the net and I missed that volley. But in the end I have to be happy with my level – not every day things are going as you want.
“I feel I was better than him in the first three sets. I had many break points (going 3/10 for the match) but he served a lot of aces. He served really well. I didn’t get the chance to play the points. It was not easy to convert the break points.”
It’s indisputable that Bautista Agut was the superior player for the first three sets and easily could have won two if not all three of them. But Raonic reverted to type in the latter stages and took complete control.
“Most of the match it was quite inconsistent from both of us,” he said. “I was sort of there on the brink at the end of the third set, then turned it around. After I held off those two (actually three) break points, I was able to reel off seven games. I was fortunate to get those points because it definitely could have been much longer.”
The match was interrupted for 12 minutes at 3-all in the third set while the roof closed as protection against light showers that continued to fall 40 minutes later when the match ended.
“You could say it helped but I didn’t think too much about it,” said Raonic (above on the big screen during the delay) about the roof closing after which he won nine of the ensuing 11 games. “I just didn’t want to have a scenario where we kept stopping and starting again – that was the second time.”
There’s an irony about the match in that on Saturday against Gilles Simon, when he was feeling ill and had slept most of the previous day, he played better than he did against Bautista Agut when he was feeling much better. Sometimes not feeling right or an injury can result in a more acute focus for a player.
“I have energy,” Raonic said regarding the flu bug that has been affecting him since mid-week last week. “I still don’t necessarily feel at full capacity. I have energy now and I can go about my days normally – sort of the tail end of the recovery. So that’s nice.”
The 2017 Australian Open has been rocked by upsets of the highest order with world No. 1 Andy Murray and No. 2 Novak Djokovic already out before the quarter-finals. “It crosses your mind,” Raonic conceded about a situation that sees him at No. 3 as the highest seed remaining in the draw. “But it’s very insignificant because there’s a lot for me to even get past that point where I would have potentially played those guys. I’m pretty intent on staying in the moment.”
He will now face No. 9 seed Rafael Nadal, the fifth in a row of the players he should have been expected to play if the draw followed the rankings. “I guess it’s panned out,” Raonic said. “We’re pretty consistent in our section.”
The match-up with Nadal is one that looked intriguing from the moment the draw was done and now has an added significance with No. 2 seed Djokovic not waiting in the semifinal – it will be either No. 11 David Goffin or No. 15 Grigor Dimitrov in Friday’s final four match-up.
Nadal leads Raonic 6-2 in their head-to-head but Raonic has won two of the last three – on hard courts at Indian Wells in 2015 and 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the quarter-finals of the Brisbane ATP 250 less than three weeks ago.
One big question mark about the match is whether it will be played in the afternoon or at night. The general consensus is that Nadal – from sunny Majorca – would prefer afternoon. The forecast for Wednesday is indeed sunny but only with a high temperature of 23 degrees.
Asked if he would have a day or night preference for playing Nadal, Raonic replied, “not really, no.”
Nadal played at night in beating Gael Monfils in four sets on Monday and might be in line for a day match – although Nadal–Raonic is a better gate and TV attraction than Dimitrov and Goffin and so could be at night.
On the subject of Goffin, Raonic invoked his name – and their fourth-round match at Wimbledon last year when he rallied from a two-set deficit to win in five – in talking about what was a false step, if not an actual stumble, against Bautista Agut.
“I guess there’s always that sort of match where you sort of fall off,” he said about Monday’s encounter with the 28-year-old Spaniard. “It’s a long two weeks. So I guess unfortunately that was it for me today. So I’m happy I was able to solve that.
“It reminded myself and my team as a lot similar to Goffin at Wimbledon. There I was able to recover well from that, make it count (reaching the final).”
Back-to-back performances can vary greatly even at the top echelon of tennis, and Raonic’s experience should allow him to be a different player on Wednesday against Nadal than the one who looked remarkably vulnerable against Bautista Agut.
ANDREESCU MOVES ON
Bianca Andreescu advanced to the third round of the Australian Open junior girls event on Monday with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Cho I-Hsuan of Taipei. The 16-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., was in control most of the way, hitting more consistently than her 16-year-old opponent in what was a rather unevenly played match.
“I don’t think I played my best tennis,” Andreescu said. “The courts are really fast so you have to be prepared more. The conditions were pretty tough with the wind and the toss and the serve weren’t so good. But I managed to pull it off.”
Describing the various bandages and wraps she’s sporting these days, Andreescu said, “the one on my left leg is because I have a quad strain but it’s fine. It’s just for prevention. The one on the right leg is just so it doesn’t rub on the other one.”
Andreescu pulled out in the third round of last week’s event in Traralgon, Australia, the Australian Open junior prep event. “It was because of the quad,” she explained. “I just wanted to be safe for the Aussie.”
Seeded No. 7, she will play Chinese wild card Yuan Chengyiyi in the third round on Wednesday.
Asked about her next opponent, Andreescu (with coach Nathalie Tauziat and Canadian Fed Cup captain Sylvain Bruneau above) said, “I actually don’t look at the draw before tournaments – after the match I check who I play and I might go watch them.”
She’s happy to be back Down Under. “I love it,” she said about the Australian Open. “It’s one of my favourite tournaments – last year I had to retire so this year my goal is to win it.”
In 2016, as the top seed, she had to pull out of her third-round match with left adductor and right ankle issues.
Andreescu is in the junior girls doubles and has reached the second round playing with 16-year-old Carson Branstine of the U.S.
AUSTRALIA POST CARD
The plant here is called ‘Kangaroo Paws’ and belongs to the genus Anigozanthos. It originates in southwest Western Australia but has spread all over Australia and is now also grown commercially in the USA, Israel and Japan. When cut it can also be displayed as flowers.
NOTE: Back tomorrow with Tebbutt Tuesday from Melbourne Park.