He spent most of Friday in bed but on Saturday evening a feverish Milos Raonic had plenty in the tank and scored a convincing 6-2, 7-6(5), 3-6, 6-3 victory over Gilles Simon in the third round of the Australian Open.
It was a Raonic at max efficiency for the first two-and-a-half sets as he hit big and followed serves and ground strokes to the net to smother the spindly, experienced Frenchman.
But just when it looked like a straightforward three-set win after he broke to lead 3-2 in the third set, Simon broke serve twice in a row to quickly reduce the arrears to two sets-to-one.
Raonic took a five-minute bathroom break after the third set and returned composed and ready to reassert himself.
While Simon looked in the ascendancy, a strong service hold in the opening game re-established Raonic and he soon broke to take a 3-1 lead. Simon broke right back and looked ready to push Raonic to the limit. But the world No. 3 broke again – making that three in a row and was able to hold on for the win despite Simon making things a little uncomfortable when he got to 15-30 in the final game. A couple of good forehands by Raonic and a backhand return into the net on the first match point and the match was in the books in a total of two hours and 35 minutes.
It was an excellent performance by Raonic who showed a much greater inclination to get to the net than he had in his previous match against Gilles Muller when he served-and-volleyed a grand total of just once. Against Simon on Saturday in Hisense Arena, he S&Ved 32 times, winning 20 of those points (63%).
“He was changing his (returning) position quite a bit,” Raonic explained about Simon, “and he’s not one of those guys who can heavily spin it (on the return). So when he was going back it gave me a lot more time to get close. It was really about keeping him out of rhythm.”
Raonic didn’t mention keeping the points short because of his flu and feverish symptoms. A bug that has been bothering him since Tuesday did not seem to be a factor. “I had a rough last 48 hours,” he said. “But I got my energy up today.”
Friday, the day following his straight-sets win over Muller, was pretty well a write-off. “I had a bad fever,” Raonic said. “I didn’t come here yesterday. I slept pretty much all day. Everything was aching.”
As usual he relied on his awesome serve – hitting 21 aces to zero for Simon and winning the points won on second serve stat by a sizeable 61% to 38% margin.
His serve, plus some big hitting, were what pressured Simon and probably drew the double fault that gave him the first service break in the fourth game in the opening set.
The numbers were all good for Raonic – even though his streak of service holds at the 2017 Australian Open came to an end at 42 when he led 3-2 in the third set and unexpectedly lost his serve the first of three times in a five-game stretch.
He blamed the service blip partly on getting passive but there had to be an element of fatigue and physical and mental letdown after such a commanding start to the match.
When asked what he was most pleased about in his performance, he replied, “just the attitude and the way I stuck through it. The game will always come if I give myself a chance.”
Partly that game on Saturday was some excellent and acrobatic volleying – 34 of 55 (62%) points won at the net. Several were of the spectacular variety, such as the one below here when he actually won the point.
Simon said he had seen Raonic’s previous match and didn’t think his being under the weather was a factor, and that in any case he really didn’t have the option to extend the points to try to wear him out. “I don’t really have a way of making it a long match,” said Simon, probably the most professorial of players in media conferences.
“He has the advantage starting the points,” continued Simon, adding with a sly smile, “if I had his serve and he had mine, it certainly wouldn’t have been the same score. If I had the chance to start the rallies, in my opinion it wouldn’t go four sets. But that’s the strength of his game. It’s his first shot in the rally and he’s the one imposing the rhythm. If we played a match serving underhand, I’d be able to do a little more and he would surely be a lot more tired even if he wasn’t sick.”
Simon last played Raonic at Queen’s Club in London in June 2015, beating him at a time when he was coming back from foot surgery the previous month. “He’s a lot better from the back of the court, but he had already made progress in that part of the game,” Simon said about Raonic. “He’s gotten better at the net. All the parts of his game are more solid. But that doesn’t bother me too much because the better he plays the more he forces me to play better as well. So I can let go and hit out and find the rhythm on my service games. He’s different but basically he’s a more complete player. That why he’s a stronger player and has fewer losses than before.”
In the picture above, the No. 25-ranked Simon is standing in front of the video screen on the back wall waiting for a Hawk-Eye display, but still looking at the screen high above the stands and not the one directly behind him.
Raonic did the same thing on a few occasions in 10,500-seat Hisense Arena with almost all the seats first-come, first served. That made for a younger and more boisterous crowd which added to the excitement as the match got interesting in the third and fourth sets.
Next for Raonic will be No. 14-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut. He has a 4-0 record against the 28-year-old Spaniard and, in three matches on hard courts and one on grass, he has only lost one set.
“It’s going to be a little bit similar to today (versus Simon),” Raonic said about the match-up. “They both hit pretty flat. Bautista tries to take over a little bit more with the forehand. Also, he doesn’t suck you in as much to his game (like the metronomic Simon). I’ve been able to find solutions for him a few times in the past. I’m going to have to step up and dictate on my terms.”
Raonic said how much he practices on Sunday would be a last-minute decision depending “on how I manage tonight and how I wake up tomorrow morning.” He added, “the most important thing for me right now is to just get myself to full capacity or as close to it as possible.”
Regarding his fever, he said he is “managing it” and taking the same medication he was taking before his previous round with Muller. That would be, “Ibuprofen, Paracetamol…something to protect my stomach (from the other drugs).”
It would appear he should be in good shape to play Bautista Agut. Asked if he ever felt he was getting tired during the Simon match, he replied, “I think that’s also why I was really trying to push myself emotionally – and maybe over the top just to not have that happen to me.”
Raonic didn’t look that good when he hit balls, and did no running, with his coach Richard Krajicek for 30 minutes mid-afternoon on Saturday while occasionally coughing. But he did still manage to stop to sign a bunch of autographs on his way off the court.
“Yes and no,” he said about whether he was surprised by how well he held up against Simon. “I think I had it within myself but I didn’t know how I was going to come through. So ‘yes’ because of that. ‘Did I think I could have done it?’ – also ‘yes.’
Raonic has now reached the round-of-16 for the fifth time in seven Australian Opens. On Monday if he beats Bautista Agut and Rafael Nadal gets past Gael Monfils, that would set up a blockbuster Raonic-Nadal quarter-final on Wednesday.
ANDREESCU INTO ROUND TWO
Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., the only Canadian junior in the Australian Open, reached the second round with a 6-4, 6-0 victory over Lisa Piccinetti of Italy on Saturday.
There has to be some concern with the extensive bandage on her left leg – a similar issue forced her out of the Aussie Open junior event a year ago.
Seeded No. 7, the 16-year-old Andreescu will play Cho I-Hsuan of Taipei in the second round on Monday.
In mixed doubles Saturday, Gabriela Dabrowski and her partner Rohan Bopanna of India advanced to the second round with a 6-4, 6-7(5), [10-7] win over Katarina Srebotnik of Slovenia and Michael Venus of New Zealand.
AUSTRALIA POST CARD
Some hospitable Australians entertained a Canadian this week with a very tasty ham and cheese pie. And they were imaginative enough to create a tennis motif on the crust. BTW – it was delicious!
NOTE: No blog on Sunday, back for Raonic – Bautista Agut on Monday.