It took exactly two hours for Novak Djokovic to complete his 7-6(5), 6-4, 6-2 victory over Milos Raonic in the Australian Open quarter-finals on Wednesday night.
For the first 55 minutes – the time it took to complete the opening set – it was a competitive match, although Djokovic did have four break points to none for Raonic before the tiebreak, including an ominous two in the very first game of the match.
Raonic had been masterful in tiebreaks – 39-13 in 2014 and 8-2 this year heading into Wednesday’s match – and Djokovic had to be feeling it once the score reached 6-6. It sure looked that way when he collapsed a forehand into the net to re-set the ‘breaker’ back on level terms at 2-2.
But when Raonic missed a forehand wide to hand the Serb another mini-break and a 4-2 lead, the four-time Australian Open champion had the separation he needed to close it out – which he did at 6-5 when Raonic misfired wildly with a forehand.
A break in the opening game of the second set and Djokovic was able to relax, elevate and cruise. There were times over the last two sets when he seemed so confident and assured that it could have almost been a practice session.
“Winning the tiebreak and making a break of serve in the first game of the second set was definitely huge for me,” Djokovic said. “I could start swinging through a little bit more, be more aggressive into the court. After the first game of the second set, I played a great match.”
It couldn’t have been easy, as the match went deeper and deeper into the second hour and Djokovic was more and more in control, for Raonic in front of a full house (15,000) in Rod Laver Arena. “By the end of the match, he was doing a good job of playing deep and never allowing me to go forward,” Raonic said about Djokovic. “If you watch the footage, he was pretty much on the baseline the whole time and I was further back.
“He just played a sound match. Nothing I can do other than go back and fix things.”
Canadian Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau spoke after the match about the amazing Djokovic court coverage – remarking on how Milos would serve wide to the forehand (in the ad court) and then drill a forehand of his own down the line and Djokovic would somehow still be there to make a play on the ball.
“He does a good job of putting the return deep,” Raonic noted about Djokovic’s service return. “But I think it’s not just that aspect. He did a good job also making me always, even if I had a short return, have to come up with a pretty good volley. It’s a combination of everything, not just his return.”
With the Australian summer season now over for Raonic, the highlight has to have been his brilliant performance in a 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-4 loss to Roger Federer in the Brisbane final three weeks ago.
“I allowed myself, against Roger, to find my game a little bit,” he said. Comparing that to facing Djokovic on Wednesday, he added, “I just could not get my organization, like figure out my patterns and play on my terms throughout the match.”
The numbers confirm Djokovic’s domination, starting with the fact that he faced no breaks points but converted three of 11 chances on the Raonic serve. And he had Raonic-like numbers in terms of first-serve points won, 89 per cent (to just 72 per cent for Raonic), and an outstanding 74 per cent of second serve points won (to 53 per cent for Raonic.)
Raonic did have a match fastest serve of 229 km/hr but generally his serving was not up to par, with the excellence of the Djokovic return game certainly a factor.
The net points stat was the most remarkable – Djokovic, judicious in making approaches to the net, was nonetheless 17 of 18 for 94 per cent – Raonic didn’t make it to 50 per cent – only 11 for 23 or 48 per cent.
The last two days have not been kind to Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard. Both are now Top 10 players and both are in the young and upcoming phase of their careers, but both received rude awakenings with one-sided losses respectively to the No. 1 player in the world, Djokovic, and No. 2 Maria Sharapova. But both reached their seeding positions, so the sense of disappointment coming from high expectations may be exaggerated.
With both being exceedingly ambitious, it’s certain that they will move on with their careers.
Raonic has to work on improving his all-round game, which has already taken a step up in the new year.
But, in his last 10 matches against Top 10 players, he has only broken serve six times – and two of those were against Tomas Berdych in the semifinals of Paris-Bercy last November. So returning serve will always be an area he has to work on.
His temperament is better, with not so many angry self-directed gestures on court.
At just turned 24, he can be encouraged by what has happened at this year’s Australian Open where two players in particular, Stan Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych, both seem to be playing the best tennis of their careers after hanging around the Top 21 for seven years (Wawrinka) and the Top 5 for five years (Berdych).
As well, nobody in the younger generation – 25-year-old Kei Nishikori, who also lost in the quarter-finals, and 23-year-old Grigor Dimitrov, who went out in the round-of-16 – did better than he did in the year’s first Grand Slam.
The ages of the four men’s semifinalists this year are:
Now Raonic gets more than a week off before playing his next event in Rotterdam, an ATP 500 and then Marseille, an ATP 250.
He was injured a year ago and unable to play at all in the month of February, so everything he does at those events should boost his ranking.
And if Berdych loses to Murray in Thursday’s semifinal, Raonic will move ahead of him into the No. 7 spot in the rankings, one place removed from his career best of No. 6 in July of 2014.
“I just wish I could have played better,” Raonic said summing up his third match in Rod Laver Arena after playing there against Lleyton Hewitt in 2012 and Roger Federer in 2013.
No one would expect him to feel any other way. The Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s quote, found on the left forearm of current Aussie Open champion Wawrinka’s, applies to Raonic and to any aspiring pro: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
A Milos sidebar
Here’s an email I received from a friend a couple of days ago, reprinted here word for word:
There is a little story I want to share with you.
I used taxi service Uber to get to the airport today. When I discussed the Aussie Open with the driver, he told me about this tennis player he picked up earlier in the week. This is what happened.
Driver: There was this tall guy that ordered a ride from Chapel Street, where he had visited a coffee shop. Once we were in the car, I referred to his athletic body.
‘You seem to play sports’
– ‘Yes I do.’
‘What is it?’
– ‘I like to play tennis’
‘At a local club or something?’
– ‘No I am from Canada. I am here for the Australian Open.’
After that answer they arrived in South Yarra, where Milos’ apartment was. The driver asked for a selfie with Milos, without knowing his name or status. But when he shared the picture with his sister, a huge tennis fan, he found out about the status of Raonic.
The driver told me Milos was a very nice person, who was modest about his status. It was also funny he used Uber I think, as it is a cheap taxi service for drivers who don’t have a license. (I did see the selfie btw, on which Milos did look like an average club player :-)).
Melbourne post card
This is a hub of all rail transportation in Melbourne – and a starting point for all kinds of sightseeing by train and tram.
NOTE: This is the last Australian Open blog. Tebbutt Tuesday returns next week with a round-up in words and pictures of the 2015 Australian Open – as well as a look forward to the Fed Cup first round between Canada vs. Czech Republic in Quebec City on February 7-8.