Milos Raonic stumbled out of the gate – dropping his serve in the very first game – but then completely took over the match to defeat 4th-seeded Sascha Zverev 6-1, 6-1, 7-6(5) and advance to his fourth quarter-final in the last five years at the Australian Open.
Any real concern after the opening game vanished when he broke back immediately and then poured it on, soon leading 2-0 in the second set after an eight-game tear.
When Zverev lost his serve to trail 4-1 in the second set, he walked over to his chair and violently tomahawked his racquet into the court eight times – and then once more for good luck.
It didn’t make much difference as Raonic broke again to win his second ‘breadstick’ set.
The third set went on serve until the tiebreak – although Zverev had to save two match points trailing 5-4, 15-40. On the first Raonic missed a service return into the net and on the second the players engaged in a 29-stroke rally that ended when Zverev hit short and Raonic dribbled a forehand into the net.
The tiebreak looked like it might go the German’s way when he hit nifty backhand passing shot winner on the first point to get the mini-break and then a 208 km/hr ace on the second point to lead 2-0. But he cancelled out the ace by hitting a double fault on the next point. Raonic kind of toyed with Zverev when they got into rallies in the tiebreak – hitting his sliced backhand cross-court with metronomic regularity.
He led 5-4 on serve when Zverev erred badly with a forehand into the net to give away the mini-break and two points later Raonic (celebrating below) was the winner.
Raonic’s backhand consistency was noted by South African Frew McMillan, a three-time Wimbledon doubles champion in the 1960s and 1970s, who was commentating on the match for Eurosport.
“Something I enjoyed about him was the sort of water-torture he applied to Zverev once he was ahead,” McMillan said about Raonic. “The whole pressure was on Zverev. The sliced backhand was just torturing him and saying ‘it’s up to you to do something, I’m ahead two sets to love.’ I loved that. I did the match and I said it on air that it was almost a professorial approach to it.”
As for the man himself, Raonic said, with no false modesty, about his performance in Rod Laver Arena, “I’m here playing some extremely good tennis.”
Asked about how his game evolved from a quarter-final 6-7(2), 6-3, 6-1 loss to No. 16 Daniil Medvedev in Brisbane two weeks ago to be playing the quality tennis he has shown at Melbourne Park, he said, “I think it was all really emotional and mental. I believe I had eight break chances in those first two sets against him. I had more than enough opportunities to make the most of it and make it go a completely different way.
“But then I got a little bit too down on myself, and I think that sort of shined a light on something that I really have to do differently at this event.
“I think I have worked on that. I have also had to play against top players where I couldn’t afford to be undisciplined in that regard.”
Zverev, who was gruff and gave short answers at his media conference, complained about how poorly he played in the first two sets. The most acknowledgment he gave of any progress in Raonic’s game was to say, “he played well from the baseline, but generally speaking, he’s still a very aggressive player. He tries to come in. You know…all that stuff. Not a lot of things have changed.”
Not unexpectedly, the Raonic serve was potent and he wasn’t broken again after that opening game. He served 15 aces, had one double fault and made 69 per cent of first serves, won 80 per cent of first serve points and 54 per cent of second serve points. He also had good numbers at the net – 33/48 – and when he served and volley he was 24/35.
McMillan was impressed with the Raonic second serve – “the very fact that he can hit a lot of those second serves as accurately as he does made it obvious by comparison with Zverev’s second serve. They were miles apart. Zverev could actually learn a lot from the way Milos hits his serves. It’s particularly the ability to hit the serve with slice to give him the angle in the right court. And then to do it, virtually with the same action, hitting the very quick serve down the middle.”
Rod Laver Arena was packed for the match, and Raonic got his fair share of support facing the 6-foot-6 German who was trying to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final for only the second time in 15 attempts. Above here Raonic is in front of the presidential box and seated in the first row (to the right of the woman in pink) are Aussie greats – 12-time Grand Slam winner Roy Emerson, 1960 Wimbledon champion Neale Fraser and (one seat over) 1952 Wimbledon winner Frank Sedgman.
Raonic is now 27-8 at the Australian Open and 24-8 at Wimbledon – his two best Grand Slams. Asked if he had an explanation for that, the cerebral native of Podgorica, Montenegro, said, “I think I have always done well at Wimbledon – the surface has always helped me. I’ve always sort of rushed over after the clay to get in as much time on it. And I think I have always done well here because I have had weeks to train and prepare – without the pressures of rushing to a tournament or from a tournament or physical sort of calculations on what you can and cannot do. You sort of just go away and you put in the work and come here. I don’t need many matches to play well. I just need to put in a good amount of work.”
Next for Raonic will be No. 31-ranked Lucas Pouille. The 24-year-old Frenchman was No. 10 in March, 2018, but has dropped to outside the top 30 – although his quarter-final at Melbourne Park has him up to about No. 24.
(Raonic has climbed No. 14 and could go to No. 12 with a win over Pouille on Wednesday.)
Pouille, who beat No. 12 Borna Coric 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-5, 7-6(2) on Monday, is 0-3 versus Raonic – having failed to win a set in losses on grass in Stuttgart last June and on hard courts in Brisbane and at the Australian Open in 2016.
Raonic’s biggest remaining challenge may be staying healthy. From June onward last year he had various injury issues:
At Queen’s Club – withdrew with right pectoral muscle after first-round win.
At Wimbledon – an upper thigh issue in a loss to John Isner.
In Cincinnati – treated for a neck problem in win over Denis Shapovalov.
At US Open – a right hip problem in loss to Isner.
In Vienna – a medical time-out for a right knee problem in loss to Jurgen Melzer.
Paris (indoor): withdrew with right elbow injury after beating Tsonga and before facing Federer.
Speaking about the physical problems he has had, Raonic said on Monday. “I think each injury has given me sort of the feeling ‘I don’t know what’s next around the corner. Am I going to be hurt again or not?’ But it’s given me more of an appreciation of when I have been healthy.”
When a reporter asked him how he could trust his body after having so many injuries, he smiled sardonically, answering, ‘only one you got. If you can’t trust it, it’s gonna be a miserable time. You give it what you can, and hopefully it can get you through.”
Gabriela Dabrowski and her Croatian partner Mate Pavic, the defending mixed doubles champions and top seeds, have moved into the second round after a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Australian wild cards Priscilla Hon and Alexei Popyrin. They will next face Chan Hao-Ching of China and Jean-Julien Rojer of the Netherlands.
In junior girls singles action, 16-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez (4) of Montreal defeated wild card Moyuka Uchijima of Japan 6-4, 7-6(5) in the second round and will next play qualifier Lisa Pigato of Italy.
In junior boys singles, 17-year-old Liam Draxl of Toronto advanced to the second round 6-3, 6-3 over Nicolas Ionel of Romania and now plays Mateus Alves of Brazil.
If this young girl doesn’t grow up to be an Australian Open champion, you somehow suspect she might wind up in the fashion business.
Note: Next blog will be on Thursday.