Right before Milos Raonic took to the court for his Australian Open second-round match against Gilles Muller on Thursday, a reporter jokingly asked his coach Richard Krajicek if he was nervous. “Not yet,” the 1996 Wimbledon champ replied with a smile. “We’ll see how it starts.”
The reporter could not have known then that Raonic was in a diminished state health-wise and that Krajicek actually was probably more than a little concerned to see how his charge would hold up, especially at the beginning.
When Raonic broke serve emphatically to love in the fourth game with some big hitting, capped by an unreturnable forehand down-the-line, Krajicek must have felt a sense of relief.
Raonic had a case of laryngitis when he did his post-match interview on court but no one suspected he was not feeling well until he appeared in his media conference looking downcast and speaking in a muted monotone. “I’ve got a little bit of flu,” he said.
The details were that he had a “bit of a cough” two days ago before going to bed following his first-round win over Dustin Brown but felt okay on his day off on Wednesday.
“This morning,” he said about Thursday, “I felt pretty bad waking up. (I) didn’t warm up much. Just came out with the sort of idea of putting everything into the match – try to solve it, understand the importance of the mental side of things in that situation.”
What pharmaceuticals was he taking to help? “Ibuprofen, Paracetamol…something to protect my stomach (from the other drugs),” he replied.
Raonic was asked if he was proud of the fact that those watching the match would likely not have had any idea that he was not feeling 100 per cent. “I tried to really focus on the things I needed to do,” he said. “Today was sort of the day I tried to play the simplest form of tennis I could, to be the one getting in the first strikes.”
The first set of his 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(4) win was fairly routine but Muller probably deserved a better fate in the second. He had three break points. Two were in the second game but a Raonic forehand winner and an ace neutralized those. Leading 2-1, Muller had another break point but misfired a forehand wide.
Very opportunistic on the day, Raonic converted his only break point at 4-all when Muller hit a feeble forehand into the net. Raonic then served out the set to 30.
The third set provided one big opportunity for Muller when he actually had a break point/set point at 6-5 but again missed a forehand into the net. The tiebreak that followed was controlled by Raonic. He never trailed and his three mini-breaks to two for Muller were enough for a 7-4 margin of victory in the one hour and 59-minute contest.
Would it have been a concern for Raonic had Muller sent the match into a fourth set? “I would have been fine,” he insisted. “I just probably would have felt worse now.”
And as to whether doctors had told him about any kind of bug that might be going around, Raonic said, “not that I’m aware of, no.”
His health and fitness will surely bear watching when he faces 32-year-old French veteran Gilles Simon on Saturday. Simon is a grinder and if Raonic is still feeling a bit under the weather he might prefer that the match be played at night in cooler temperatures – although the high for Saturday is predicted to be only 22 degrees.
The upset of six-time champion Novak Djokovic by Denis Istomin on Thursday has to be a good omen for Raonic. He has multiple wins over the other three members (Federer, Nadal and Murray) of the so-called Big Four but has yet to beat Djokovic (0-8). So a huge potential impediment – they were slated to meet in the semifinals – has been removed and now the highest-ranked player he could face in the final four is No. 8 seed Dominic Thiem.
Beyond Simon, it would be either No. 13 Roberto Bautista Agut or No. 21 David Ferrer in the round-of-16 and then probably either No. 9 Rafael Nadal or No. 24 Alexander Zverev in the quarters.
Raonic has performed impressively in straight-set wins over Dustin Brown and Muller in his first two matches – he has not been broken in 30 games and has saved all seven break points he has faced.
Things could be setting up nicely for run to at least the final if he can maintain his form and his fitness.
GENIE GETS COCO
Genie Bouchard, running here against Peng Shuai in her second round, will face the explosive, erratic Coco Vandeweghe in her third-round match Friday at 11 a.m. (7 p.m. ET Thursday in Canada) in Rod Laver Arena.
“Sydney or the Bush” is a traditional Aussie expression meaning all or nothing. It accurately describes the 25-year-old Vandeweghe’s game. She doesn’t do half measures – everything is full bore. The French call it playing “casino tennis” and in Vandeweghe’s case it’s either break the bank or go broke.
While Bouchard is no shrinking violet in terms of hitting big on her ground strokes, she is at least known at times to work a point and wait for the opening. But the No. 35-ranked Vandeweghe has a quick trigger and you can sense her eagerness to pull it the longer a point lasts. When she does, the ball often doesn’t come back – if it first manages to land within the confines of the court. If it doesn’t she often shows off a petulant streak that should be better controlled by a pro who has been on the main WTA tour for seven years.
In their only previous meeting, the 5-foot-10 Bouchard beat the 6-foot-1 Vandeweghe 6-3, 6-2 at Indian Wells in 2015.
The prize for the winner will be a spot in the round-of-16 against top seed Angelique Kerber or the No. 58-ranked of the Pliskova twins – left-handed Kristyna. If Bouchard gets there it would be her first fourth round at a Grand Slam since the 2015 US Open when she had to withdraw before her match with Roberta Vinci following her locker-room fall and subsequent concussion.
Friday’s Bouchard – Vandeweghe match could very likely be played with the Rod Laver roof closed because of the high probability of rain.
NESTOR ROLLS WITH ROGER-VASSELIN
Daniel Nestor and partner Edouard Roger-Vasselin won the first seven games of their match on their way to a first-round 6-0, 6-4 win over Argentines Andres Molteni and Diego Schwartzman on Thursday. The Franco/Canadian pair converted on four of nine break points but faced none on their own serves in the one-sided contest.
“We played a solid match,” Nestor said. “It could have been even easier but we played a good first match for sure.”
In the second round Nestor and Roger-Vasselin will face Aussie wild cards Andrew Whittington, 23, and Marc Polmans, 19. “I played Whittington in the quarters here a few years ago,” Nestor said. “He was a junior and had a good run. I know he’s got a big serve.”
Nestor’s game of musical chairs with partners seems to have found a good fit in the 33-year-old Roger-Vasselin. Together they have three titles (and three finals) in 10 events played together in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
“He’s just rock solid everywhere,” Nestor said about the Frenchman. “It’s nice to have someone that you know you can rely on – someone that’s going to make returns and volleys under pressure. He’s one of the best.”
Round two versus Whittington and Polmans will be played on Court 8 first off at 11 a.m. on Friday (7 p.m. ET Thursday in Canada).
Also on Thursday, Adil Shamasdin and his French partner Adrian Mannarino were beaten 6-2, 6-3 by the top-seeded team from France, Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut.
Friday’s women’s doubles features a second-round encounter matching Gabriela Dabrowski and Michaella Krajicek against Andreja Klepac of Slovenia and Spaniard Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, who was Dabrowski’s partner all of last year. The match is third on Court 20 at about 2 p.m. (10 p.m. ET on Thursday in Canada) weather permitting.
AUSTRALIA POST CARD
There are worse things to be doing these summer days than kayaking on the Yarra River that flows past the Melbourne Park tennis grounds. The guys here are going under the Princes Bridge built in 1888. It’s right in the heart of the city and that’s one of Melbourne’s famous trams passing on it.