Milos Raonic is playing in his tenth Australian Open and for the ninth time in those 10 years he has reached at least the third round.
He did it on Wednesday with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Cristian Garin of Chile.
The odds moved in his favour even before the first ball was struck about 4 p.m. That was because Stefanos Tsitsipas’ intended opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany, withdrew with an abdominal issue from their match in 9,646-seat Melbourne Park Arena (MPA). That left a gap in the order of play in MPA and so the Raonic–Garin second rounder was moved inside away from strong, gusty winds that wrecked havoc all day long on the grounds.
Above is what the winds looked like on Court 19, where the match was originally scheduled to be played, at about the time Raonic-Garin actually began in Melbourne Park – known in earlier incarnations as Vodafone and Hisense Arena.
“You could only really feel it on one side,” Raonic said about the wind in MPA, “so it definitely helped. I was a little bit nervous because the court is much bigger. I thought being on a smaller court (Court 19) against him would also help me. But it was one court I had a hit on and I started feeling comfortable in there. And not having the wind goes a long ways. Also I heard there was some bad weather around as well so knowing that I’d get to play my match today (with the retractable roof) was also important.”
Garin wasn’t quite as pleased with the change of venue. “I’ve never played on that court,” he said about MPA. “I couldn’t even practice on it. In the beginning I was a little surprised because it was a little bit faster than the other courts that I played on. Also Milos is a player who likes to play very aggressive and in the beginning I was a little bit lost.”
It showed in the second game of the match when he served at 15-15 and proceeded to hit consecutive double faults and miss a regulation forehand, near the net into the net, to lose serve.
Raonic had the early separation he needed and – winning 92 per cent of first-serve points (to 65 per cent for Garin) on the day – he soon took control. There was only one slip up – when he fell behind love-40, triple-break point serving at 4-3 in the second set. But he came up with three strong shots – an angled forcing forehand, a terrific outright forehand winner off the serve return and a 212 km/hr ace.
Four stats stood out in the hour and 37-minute encounter – Raonic won those 92 per cent of first-serve points, ‘out-aced’ Garin 19-2, was 4/4 on break points converted to 0/3 for the 23-year-old Chilean and 8/8 on serve-and-volley points to 0/0 for his opponent.
“I thought it was pretty efficient,” Raonic summed up. “I had a little bit of a scare there – those break points in that love-40 game – but I thought I played all three points well. I took care of my serve and was always getting ahead early in the serve games so it took the pressure off me. And returning I was getting better and better as the match went on.”
Raonic’s famous and infamous sleeve has reappeared on his right arm after an absence of a couple of years. “It started the same way that it started the first time,” he explained. “I was training in the off season and I actually had a skin rash from the sun. I was putting on cream because it (his arm) was a little bit sore a few days and I started getting a rash. Then it just sort of stayed around. I probably didn’t wash off the cream properly or something before I went out.”
Friday’s third-round match-up will be a first-time meeting between the 29-year-old Raonic and Tsitsipas who is 21 and ranked No. 6. Raonic has been as high as No. 3 (2016) but his periods of inactivity the past year or two have resulted in a drop to his current No. 35.
“He’s playing extremely well,” Raonic said about the 6-foot-4 Athenian. “He won his first title I believe it was in Stockholm a year-and-a-half ago and since then he’s really stepped it up. He played well here last year (upsetting Roger Federer and losing to Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals), he’s beaten all the top guys (Novak Djokovic, Nadal and Federer) and these kind of things. So he’s working his way up and he’s at a pretty high level right now. I haven’t played much tennis of late so I’ve just got to focus on doing my things well to give myself an opportunity.”
An ardent student and follower of the game, Raonic insists he’s familiar with Tsitsipas even though he hasn’t played him. “I’m always watching tennis on TV,” he said. “Whether it be me at the tournament or me at home. So there were a lot of big matches to watch from him – the one with Roger last year, he played well in Madrid last year and the World Tour Finals last year (Tsitsipas was champion beating Federer in the semi-finals and Dominic Thiem in the final). There were a bunch of matches that I saw. I’m sure that over these two years I’ve seen a lot more of him than he’s seen of me.”
There’s a large Greek community in Melbourne – maybe the largest in the world outside of the motherland – and historically it has come out to support homegrown Mark Philippoussis, Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis and now Tsitsipas. Raonic insists he won’t let a partisan crowd bother him on Friday. “I’m not the kind of guy that gets too riled up, I sort of keep my head down and go about my thing,” he said. “So I don’t get too involved with the crowd and that kind of thing. I think that outside factor is just an outside factor. I’ve got to focus on doing my things well and make that my priority and forget the rest.
“Stefanos has more weapons than the guy I played today (Wednesday). He tries to create. It’s going to be important for me to be the one that’s being proactive rather reacting to the things he’s doing. I’m going to have to keep serving better.”
Raonic seemed to blast first serves regularly an effortlessly in the 228 km/hr range against the No. 36-ranked Garin and should be able to do likewise against Tsitsipas.
Last week before the Aussie Open began, Raonic expressed the belief that fellow Canadians Denis Shapovalov, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Vasek Pospisil should do well in their Aussie Open first-round matches – Shapovalov because Marton Fucsovics didn’t have the weapons to bother him, Auger-Aliassime because he faced a qualifier (not knowing it would be Ernests Gulbis) and Pospisil because he has a good record against big servers (such as Ivo Karlovic). But all three were beaten in the opening round.
“I think it was just bad luck,” Raonic said about the defeats. “These guys are going to be around these tournaments – they’re going to do well at them but they may not necessarily be able to do well at every single one but they’re going to have their opportunities. They’ve already stepped up and taken a lot of them. They’re just going to be in those situations more and more times and they’ll be better and better with them.”
Being a Canadian could be a secret weapon for Raonic against Tsitsipas. The Greek does not have a stellar head-to-head record against his main Canadian rivals – he’s 1-3 with Shapovalov and 1-2 with Auger-Aliassime.
Always a concern is Raonic’s stamina because his last tournament match of 2019 was October 30th in Paris. At least the weather should not be oppressive – with mainly sunny and a high temperature of 23 forecast.
“I don’t think that will be an issue,” he said about his endurance if he was required to play a five-setter. “I didn’t always necessarily have the chance to play tennis but I did, over the weeks, have had a chance to do a lot of fitness.”
AUSSIE POST CARD
Picture a normal ocean beach with the sand sloping gently down to the water. Then look at the picture here of the beach three weeks ago in Wollongong, south of Sydney. Overnight a strong north-easterly wind came in a pushed up a lot of loose sand resulting in this cliff-like rift along the beach. By the next day it was more of a ridge and the beach was completely restored to normal in just a matter of days.
But it sure was a surprise to see it that first day.