Milos Raonic moved into the quarter-finals of the Australian Open with an impressive 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-3 win over fourth-seeded Stan Wawrinka on Monday.
It was a mature display and excellent example of the new and improved Milos Raonic – committed to controlled aggression and constantly looking to move forward to the net.
His numbers there told the story – 54 of 83 net points (65 per cent) won – and are indicative of a player growing into the game-style that’s most suited to his skill-set.
Raonic often talks about the nine lost months in 2015 when he was diminished by injuries. Some of that time was spent reflecting on his game and the idea of getting to the net more to volley. “When I had time injured and I wasn’t so caught up in playing a lot of matches, travelling from tournament to tournament…when I was sort of sitting there maybe a bit annoyed with the physical situation I was in, I was asking myself, ‘what can I do better?’
“It was something definitely I felt was necessary for me. So I think Carlos (Moya) has sort of taken the tools that me and Riccardo (Piatti) worked on in the winter and he’s sort of telling me ‘you’re doing well up there, keep getting yourself up there.’”
People are noticing the change in Raonic, including veteran ESPN commentator Darren Cahill. During the fourth set, he declared, “I like this version of Milos Raonic regardless of whether he wins or not. It’s much more entertaining to watch.”
Raonic offered insight on his volleying improvement. “I’m much better with my legs,” he said. “I don’t sort of stop to try to arm the volley. And I’m spending a lot more time up there.”
That includes in practice. “I give it (volleying) a more respectable amount of time than I have in the past,” he said.
The match was all Raonic in the first two sets. Even though he went down 0-2 right off in the second, he broke back twice, including the last game of the set to take a healthy two sets to love lead.
Until Wawrinka broke to lead 6-5 in the third set, there was nothing between the two players. But the break was helped by a misjudgment by Raonic with the score 15-all. On a Wawrinka passing shot at him, Raonic decided to let it go only to watch it land inside the baseline. That made the score 15-30 and the Swiss went on to break serve, hold serve and basically get back into the match.
Raonic later conceded about the passing shot, “I should have gone for it. I don’t think it was a difficult volley. There was a little wishful thinking that it would go long.”
Wawrinka broke Raonic to lead 4-2 in the fourth set and matters eventually moved on to a fifth-set decider.
It was up and down early on as Raonic saved two break points in a six-deuce opening game and then Wawrinka saved two of his own before leveling at 2-all. Raonic had two more break points leading 3-2 and finally got the break. He was rewarded for yet another trip to the net when Wawrinka misfired long on a decent forehand passing shot opportunity. Raonic had the break and a 4-2 lead.
A service hold to 15 at 4-2 and then a hold to love at 5-3 – capped off by an easy pat forehand volley on match point and Raonic had the win.
It was only his second victory on a centre court at a Grand Slam – the first was in five sets over Gilles Simon at the French Open in 2014. “It’s great,” said Raonic who had previously lost to Lleyton Hewitt, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in Rod Laver Arena, “but I think it was more these Grand Slam champions, guys that have been playing great, and to beat one of them for the first time at a Slam – doesn’t matter if it was Court 15 or whichever court – it was a very concrete message about the work I’m putting in.”
Wawrinka managed to be competitive for five sets over three hours and 44 minutes but unfortunately brought up the matter of his fitness afterward when he said, ‘I’ve been sick since 10 days now. It’s been a tough 10 days for me. But I was still trying to get to the second week. When you play a guy like Milos, it’s difficult. You need to be 100 per cent to have a chance to beat him.”
About the third and fourth sets, Wawrinka said, “he let me come back in the match. Even if I battled and tried to find answers, he really went down and left me a couple of openings and I was able to push him to the fifth set.”
Summing up, Wawrinka, 30 and a man who has won two Grand Slam titles – Australian Open 2014 and French Open 2015 – over the past two years, said, “a loss is a loss. Honestly I’m disappointed – but nothing more. Maybe it’s age or my results the last few years but it hurts a lot less. As long as I give all on the court and I push myself – I have few regrets.”
Raonic’s reaction when he won showed how fired up he was about the outcome, something of a validation of all his work and a reward for persisting through multiple obstacles last year – foot problems and surgery in the spring and back spasms in the summer and fall. “Some days I was hiding the disappointments I was having because of injuries, some days I was not,” he said.
Coach Moya was pleased with Raonic’s performance. “The way he kept fighting and he kept calm, he had many chances to win in three or four sets, he didn’t convert and then in the fifth he kept fighting,” the 39-year-old Spaniard said. “I’m very proud of the way he played today.
“Milos volleyed very well because Stan can hit very hard and he has good passing shots. But still the courts here are fast and Milos is a tall guy and he has good volleys so he has to volley more often.”
Todd Woodbridge, one of the greatest doubles players of all time and a Wimbledon semifinalist in 1997, is a lead commentator for Channel 7’s coverage in Australia and is at the Australian Open after being in Brisbane two weeks ago when Raonic won the title beating Roger Federer.
“There’s a look of calmness about his performance,” Woodbridge, 43, said on Monday about Raonic. “Twelve months ago in Brisbane he played Roger (Federer) in the final and he played a brilliant match and he looked like a player redlining it, playing his very best. But he couldn’t continue that and Roger got him. This year in Brisbane, maybe Roger’s health wasn’t 100 per cent, but as a player it looks like Milos is playing that level with something more without redlining. He looks calm and under control and playing a level of tennis that can beat these top guys. It seems in his attitude, and even his on-court interview and the way he was today, that he firmly believes he’s in a position to go a little further. Now that little further could be finals of majors or maybe win one. He’s positioning himself to be ready to take a Slam if the opportunity arises. That’s what his game is looking like.”
Next Raonic has to test that game against Gael Monfils, the acrobatic, histrionic French showman who dove for a shot in his four-set win over Russian Andrey Kuznetsov on Tuesday. The photograph of him sailing through the air has been widely viewed. But he did damage to his right little finger when he landed. “There’s a big scrape there and they almost had to put in stitches,” Monfils said.
Raonic and 23rd-seeded Monfils have played twice before, Monfils winning 6-4, 6-3 indoors in Stockholm in 2011 and 6-4, 6-2 on grass in Halle in 2013.
Moya’s suggestion of what Raonic should do after his big win over Wawrinka was, “forget about this day today, this victory. He’d never beaten Wawrinka before – that’s a big tournament for him – so try to cool down, forget about it and be focused for the next match.”
About Monfils, the newest arrival on the Raonic team added, “he’s going to try to keep the ball in – a lot of long rallies I guess. And Milos is going to have to do the opposite – shorten the point. He can still play from the baseline. You could see that, he broke Wawrinka’s serve five times and he had many chances to do it. He’s can play very well from the baseline but his game is to be attacking and mix it up a little bit and finishing the point with the volley.”
Monfils, who has been in six Grand Slam quarter-finals in his 10-year career, has only once – 2008 Roland Garros – gone a step further. But French reporters at this year’s Aussie Open say that Monfils was disgusted at his play in 2015 and has a more determined attitude this year.
He is capable of returning the Raonic serve as a player with the unique distinction of being the only one to have faced ace-serving machine Ivo Karlovic in a match and prevented the 6-foot-11 Croat from hitting a single ace – 2008 Monte Carlo when Monfils won 7-6(8), 6-1.
“I have to take the game to him,” Raonic said about playing Monfils. “If I can keep up the efficiency moving forward, I’ll definitely have some opportunities.”
In terms of showmanship, Raonic has no chance, or inclination, to compete with the charismatic 29-year-old Monfils. “I know from when I was a junior I learned in many tough lessons that when I get too emotional for the positive, I can start going too negative too fast,” he said. “That cost me too many matches. I didn’t find it was the best thing for me.”
Lately, he has definitely found what is the best thing for him on the court and a spot in his second career Grand Slam semifinal is in the cards if he continues to play as he has since the beginning of 2016.
Away from the court (above) on the weekend, Raonic and girlfriend Danielle Knudson took in the Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei shows at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Nestor, Pospisil close in at Aussie
Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil moved to within one match of a semifinal clash in the Australian Open with doubles victories on Sunday.
Nestor and Radek Stepanek defeated Spaniards Pablo Andujar and Pablo Carreno Busta 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 while Pospisil and Sock sent Lleyton Hewitt into retirement by beating him and Sam Groth 6-4, 6-4. For the record, the last shot of Hewitt’s storied career was a missed service return off a serve by Pospisil.
In Tuesday’s quarter-finals, the ninth-seeded Pospisil and Sock will play the No. 16 team of Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay and Marcel Granollers of Spain.
Nestor and Stepanek take on Nestor’s former partner Max Mirnyi of Belarus and Treat Huey of the Philippines in their quarter-final.
If both win Tuesday’s matches in Margaret Court Arena – Pospisil and Sock play ay 11 a.m (7 p.m. Monday EST in Canada) – Canada would be guaranteed a player in Saturday evening’s doubles final.
Perennial doubles contenders Bob and Mike Bryan, seeded third, were eliminated in the third round 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 by 13th seeds Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Rajeev Ram of the United States.
Andreescu into third round
Top seed Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., moved into the third round of the junior girls event on Monday defeating Jade Lewis of New Zealand 6-2, 6-3.
The 15-year-old will next play wild card Baijing Lin of Australia. Andreescu is on the schedule on Tuesday alongside Charlotte Robillard-Millette of Blainville, Que in doubles. They are top-seeded and will play Destanee Aiava of Australia and Lucie Kankova of Czech Republic.
Katherine Sebov of Toronto plays her second-round match on Tuesday. First match up at 11 a.m. (7 p.m. EST Monday in Canada) against Petra Hule of Australia.
In the junior boys event, Jack Mingjie Lin of Toronto was beaten by No. 2 seed Miomir Kecmanovic on Monday. The second-seeded Serb won the second-round match by a 6-1, 6-4 score.
On Tuesday, boys No. 4 seed Félix Auger-Aliassime of Montreal will take on Tao Mu of China.
Australian post card
One of the landmarks of Melbourne is Young and Jackson’s, a bar at the corner of Swanston and Flinders streets. At the establishment – which no longer has rooms for rent – there is an iconic painting “Chloe.” It has been at Young and Jackson’s since 1909 and was painted by Frenchman Jules Joseph Lefebvre and originally acquired by a Melbourne doctor. During World War I, the controversial nude of ‘Chloe’ apparently inspired many Australian soldiers at home and overseas.
This poster is on the wall in a room next door to ‘Chloe.’
NOTE: No blog on Tuesday – back for the Raonic – Monfils quarter-final on Wednesday.