It took a lot of grit and grimacing, mostly from Milos Raonic, but Canada’s top two players advanced to the third round of the US Open with hard-earned victories on Wednesday.
Raonic, struggling with back issues that required three on-court treatments by a trainer, hung in with Fernando Verdasco and emerged with a 6-2, 6-4, 6-7(5), 7-6(1) win. Bouchard, recording back-to-back wins for the first time since Indian Wells in March, battled hard to prevail 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-3 over Polona Hercog of Slovenia.
Raonic’s injury problems over the past few months, especially since foot surgery on May 13, and Bouchard’s poor form of late, made decent runs for either of them seem questionable when Flushing Meadows began on Monday. Now, both are within a victory of equaling their US Open results of 12 months ago.
Standing in the way will be Feliciano Lopez, who is 3-3 with Raonic and won their most recent encounter – 7-6(4), 6-4 in the opening round of Cincinnati two weeks ago – and Dominika Cibulkova, a former world No. 10 (2014) who is rounding into form after having a left Achilles tendon surgery in March. Friday’s third-rounder will be their first meeting.
Unable to practice on Tuesday because of back spasms, Raonic had to be apprehensive when the match with the No. 42-ranked Verdasco began on the US Open’s Grandstand court. But the 31-year-old Spaniard played a game littered with unforced errors at the very outset and Raonic broke serve and made it hold up to take the set.
Again in the second set, Verdasco unraveled serving at 4-all, finishing with a double fault. In the following game, Raonic served it out, ending it with his tenth ace (of 18 on the day).
It appeared that Verdasco might go down in three when he trailed 2-0 in the third-set tiebreak but he rallied as Raonic seemed to get a little tight.
It had not been an easy time for the No. 10 seed. It was obvious he was not 100 percent. He doubled over after hitting a shot in the third game of the third set and soon received a treatment (above) from trainer Clay Sniteman with Verdasco leading 4-3.
From that point on there was a sense Verdasco believed he might get through because of Raonic’s stuggles. And there probably was a realistic chance of that in the fourth set – namely with the score at 4-all when he had four break points (his only ones of the match), and each one of them on a second serve. But Raonic came up huge in the clutch and was eventually able to completely dominate the decisive tiebreak – taking a 6-0 lead before winning 7-1 to end the two-hour and 51-minute match.
While he had 44 unforced errors in the match and looked awkward at times, he also whaled a number of big shots, particularly when Verdasco didn’t expect it or on important points. “I was going for it,” Raonic would later explain about his big-hitting. “I knew what I was playing with. I just tried to make the most of what I could do during the match. It allowed me to play a little bit more freely…but at the same time it’s sort of the way I wanted to play.”
Raonic also popped some pills to alleviate his ails but mostly it was his determination that served him best. “Mental fortitude today is what has gotten me through, and what’s going to give me a chance in the next match as well,” he said. “I just have to keep plugging away and trying to get better with each match.”
That spirit, at least at one point, was shaken and led to him weighing the merits of continuing to play. “There were some doubts – should I keep going or not?” he admitted. “The worst part was it was getting worse and worse.”
The back problem dates back to Rogers Cup in Montreal last month, but 2015 has not been a year of sterling fitness for the 24-year-old from Thornhill, Ont. Asked about the last time he was really healthy, he replied, “I’d probably say Australia (January) time. But it’s just a tennis player’s life. We don’t have substitutes or anything. There’s always something nagging at you.”
While he was unable to hit on Tuesday before Wednesday’s match with Verdasco, Raonic said about Thursday, “I believe I’ll practice tomorrow.”
All in all, these are trying days for the hyper-motivated, hyper-ambitious world No. 10. “It’s tiring,” he said about the various ailments that have plagued him. “When you wake up every morning and you’re sort of asking yourself, ‘am I going to be better today?’ Sometimes you get positive signs from your body and sometimes you get disappointing signs.
“I think that’s the most tiring part – that sort of first moment when you turn out of bed and you ask yourself, ‘ok, am I in good shape today?’”
Verdasco was not the most gallant of losers – cynically mimicking a person with a sore back as he walked to change ends trailing 6-0 in the final-set tiebreak.
When Bouchard was asked what she was most proud of after winning those consecutive matches for the first time since Indian Wells, she said, “this year I’ve had a couple of matches where it’s been tough to close out. I just tried to block that out of my mind, block the outcome as well out of my mind. I believed in myself in the third – kept the confidence up and the belief. (I) tried to keep myself going energy-wise. Those are things that I think helped today”
Bouchard has only won five matches since the Australian Open in January – and that was also the last time she won a three setter – 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 over Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania in the round-of-16.
The third set of Bouchard – Hercog on Wednesday featured the highest quality moments of the match. Both players were really hitting out and that resulted in some extended and exciting rallies. Bouchard was the one winning the most telling points after matters got rather tense when her 4-0 lead was cut to 5-3 by the game Hercog, a willowy 6-footer, who appeared to adopt a strategy of going for broke.
Bouchard was notably competent around the net – winning 22 of 37 fore-court points while Hercog was a more modest six for 12.
“I was trying to finish points off at the net,” Bouchard said. “My opponent today was staying far back, so I felt like I had to mix things up and change it because it was quite different from most opponents I’ve played.”
It was definitely a Bouchard crowd in the Grandstand, and she acknowledged that fact in her on-court interview following the match.
“I feel like my level went up and down a little bit,” she said over the P.A. system, “but I held my nerve at the end and that was the key to the match.
“It gives me confidence for sure and I’m excited to win two matches in a row. It’s been a while since I’ve done that.
“You guys are great. I feel your support so much. I love it too whoever screamed (on the last point) ‘finish it.’ (Smiling) I’m like ‘I’m trying.’”
That cry of “finish it” came at deuce in the final game. Two points later she had won the match on her third match point.
In some ways it wasn’t quite the Genie Bouchard of a year ago, someone who would just blow her opponent off the court – in fact Hercog finished with only two fewer (46-44) winners than Bouchard.
But it was those nerves that Bouchard referred to that made the difference. There were many long rallies at the tail end of the final set of a match that lasted a grueling two hours and 32 minutes – and it was Bouchard who was the steadier, more consistent competitor on the court.
Cibulkova on Friday will provide much different opposition. The pint-sized powerhouse – just 5-foot-3 – punches well above her weight and likes to play aggressively from the baseline. And she’s a fighter.
Bouchard recognized that. “She’ll try everything to win,” she said about the 26-year-old Slovak. “And me too.”
The doubles day
Daniel Nestor and partner Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France were the only successful team involving a Canadian in doubles action on day three of the US Open.
Nestor and Roger-Vasselin, seeded ninth, had an uncomplicated 6-4, 6-4 victory over Chris Guccione of Australia and Andre Sa of Brazil.
The pair have now won 10 of their 11 matches since joining forces at Rogers Cup last month.
In the second round, Nestor and Roger-Vasselin will play Jeremy Chardy of France and Lukasz Kubot of Poland.
Ironically, Kubot and Nestor played together last week at the ATP 250 event in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and reached the semifinals.
The surprise, and disappointment, of the day was the loss of the No. 11 seeds, Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock.
They were beaten 4-6, 7-6(8), 7-5 in a topsy-turvy match by Leonardo Mayer of Argentina and Joao Sousa of Portugal.
Pospsil and Sock rallied from 6-3 down in the second set tiebreak and then had match points before eventually losing it 10-8.
The third set was full of ups and downs as the Argentine/Portuguese duo broke serve first and led 4-2, only to have Pospisil and Sock break back to 4-all.
At 5-all, with Sock serving, there were some thrilling rallies as the jam-packed crowd – standing room only – on the 1,066-capacity Court 4 was decidedly partisan in favour of the Canadian/American pair. Sock’s serve was broken and on one of the points he was deep in the court and his backhand hit Pospisil at the net, losing them the point.
In the final game, a nervous Sousa managed to serve it out, but not before getting out of a 15-40 jam and finally converting on the third match point.
The other Canadian doubles loser on Day 3 was Gabriela Dabrowski (above on right). She and her partner Alicja Rosolska of Poland were ousted 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 by 23-year-old twins Lyudmyla and Nadiya Kichenok of Ukraine.
Below is what the Kichenok twins look like.
Inside the US Open
Hard to believe that spectators would bring a child so young to an event crowded with more than 37,000 people and with the weather being so hot and humid. But, for the second day in a row, ‘inside the US Open’ features a baby. This one looks to be barely out of the womb.