Whether it’s hard work, maturity or John McEnroe – maybe a combination of all three – Milos Raonic’s obsession with being the best player he can be is one step from being fulfilled. And even better, it’s at the most hallowed and prestigious of tennis competitions – The Championships, Wimbledon.
On Friday, he faced the man who most completely embodies everything treasured about the event, Roger Federer, and beat the seven-time champion in a match of twists and turns and drama. The final score of the semifinal was 6-3, 6-7(3), 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.
It was only Raonic’s third win in 12 encounters with the 34-year-old Swiss and his first ever at a Grand Slam over one of the so-called Big Four – Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
Seeing the mighty Swiss across the net, especially in the confines of Centre Court, can be an intimidating experience even for a player like Raonic who has been on the tour full-time for almost six years and has played members of the Big Four in the main stadiums in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York.
“He has the most decorated achievements and successes in tennis,” Raonic said about Federer, “more than anybody by a good amount.
“(But) you’re playing who Roger is today, not who he’s been the past few years. So you try to focus in on that and what you need to do – try not to spend too much time and attention thinking about him. Especially for myself, I’ve got to always worry about myself first.”
That was particularly useful in this instance because Federer had given him a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 tennis lesson when they met in 2014 in the same semifinal situation.
“Two years ago I bottled up all the difficulties I had on court and never got it out,” Raonic said of the inner battles he went through in that meeting with Federer. “Today I found a way to keep plugging away, keep myself in the match, then sort of turn it around. I was more vocal and a lot more positive on court.”
In the early going there weren’t too many emotions to bottle up as he faced no break points and broke Federer for a 3-1 lead as the world No. 3 hit a nervy double fault into the net on game point. That pretty well sealed the 33-minute opening set.
The second set was even until Federer held break point/set point with Raonic serving at 4-5. Raonic got out of that jam with some forcing tennis but then coughed up a double fault at 3-all in the ensuing tiebreak and that was enough for Federer to capitalize and take the set.
In the third set, Raonic seemed to lose confidence and Federer forged ahead with a break to 4-3 and then wrapped up the set by holding serve twice to love.
His superiority extended into the fourth set and he might have put the match away had he converted either of the two breaks points at 2-all or the one he had at 4-all.
But Raonic had steadied and then pounced when Federer showed vulnerability when he served at 5-6 to get into a tiebreak. Leading 40-love, Raonic hit a forehand cross-court winner and then Federer – only his third and fourth of the day – inexplicably double faulted on back-to-back points. Raonic then had two break points/set points and Federer saved the first two but not the third. On that one, he hit behind Raonic but his 6-foot-5 opponent was there and confidently guided a backhand passing shot down-the-line for the break and chance to play one set to get into the Wimbledon final.
Raonic went off the court for a bathroom break at the end of the set and Federer called for trainer Clay Sniteman to treat his right thigh.
The match had seen dramatic swings but it was about to make its final act in Raonic’s favour. Serving at 1-2, deuce, Federer took a bad tumble and watched from a prone position on the court as Raonic hit a forehand passing shot winner to set up break point. Federer saved it but not a second four points later. After hitting his fifth double fault, Federer stone-walled volleys at the net until Raonic cracked a beauty forehand cross-court passing shot for the break. He gave a loud roar and led 3-1 soon to quickly become 4-1.
Federer didn’t threaten again and Raonic, serving better and better, held serve the final two times at the loss of just a single point. The last game consisted of a service winner, an ace, a service winner and forehand passing shot wide by Federer.
“Obviously what happened here two years ago, I was very disappointed with,” Raonic said in referencing his comeback on Friday against Federer. “Today I sort of persevered. I was sort of plugging away. I was struggling through many parts of the match. He gave me a little opening towards the end of the fourth. I made the most of it. Then I sort of tried to run away with it.”
The way he finished the match was much like his round-of-16, a match when he rallied from a 0-2 sets deficit and then basically ground down David Goffin with an avalanche of big shots. By the end on Friday, Federer was under the thrall of a Raonic in total control of his power game – a.k.a. he was “imposing” his tennis.
“He’s always had great focus,” Federer said about Raonic. “Serve for serve, point for point, he’s always done a tremendous job there. I feel like since maybe a year and a half now he feels maybe a bit more comfortable coming to the net.”
Interestingly, Raonic (38/56) and Federer (25/37) were equally successful (68%) on net approaches.
Continued Federer on Raonic, “I just think he believes more now and he has clearly evolved as a player the last two or three years.”
There is no question about that. Contemporaries Grigor Dimitrov, now ranked No. 37, and even Kei Nishikori at No. 6, have never shown the consistent ability to truly threaten the biggest names in the game on the biggest stages the way Raonic has in 2016.
Whether Raonic’s latest prowess is significantly due to bringing McEnroe on board as a coach for Wimbledon, joining Carlos Moya who has been around intermittently since January, only he would know.
“There was a significant point for me coming back from two-sets-to-love down in the fourth round,” Raonic said. “Both Carlos and John took me aside and said, ‘this can change your career at this point.’ So hopefully it continues this way.”
Moya, 39 and the French Open champion in 1998, is well-placed, as a member of the Raonic team, to evaluate McEnroe’s influence. “He’s a guy who knows a lot about tennis and is probably the best serve-and-volleyer ever,” Moya said about McEnroe. “He’s adding things to the team obviously and bringing good energy which we need when we spend so much time together. He’s a great addition to the team.”
The third coach, Riccardo Piatti, who is currently home in Italy conducting tennis camps, is the mentor who spends the most time with him. “Riccardo has given me a lot of base foundation,” Raonic said. “He’s the one I spend the most weeks with when I’m away from tournaments because he’s the guy that’s completely okay with being on the court for six hours.”
Raonic now faces the challenge of Andy Murray, champion at Wimbledon in 2013 and runner-up in 2012. He’s 3-6 against Murray but challenged him to the hilt at the Aussie Open in a five-set semifinal in January and was oh-so close to beating him in the Queen’s Club final just three weeks ago before losing 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-3.
It’s a classic match-up with Raonic arguably being the best server in tennis and Murray, along with Novak Djokovic, being the best returner.
“Normally as the match goes on, I see the serve easier,” Murray said Friday after beating Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 in under two hours. “There are things you can pick up. That was what happened in the Queen’s final. I didn’t get many opportunities in the first set. Then I started to read the serve a little bit better. There were a few things I picked up on and started to return much better.”
So it’s sort of the irresistible force against the immovable object.
And the irresistible force will be carrying Canada’s hopes. “It’s a pretty special recognition of the state of Canadian tennis,” Raonic said about being the first male from his country to reach a Wimbledon (or a Grand Slam) singles final. “It’s not just me. I’m not sure how Denis (Shapovalov won and is in Sunday’s junior boys final) did today, but I know he saved himself in the second set. Before I went on court, I was watching that match.
“There’s many people doing well on this stage, the junior stages. There’s a lot to look forward to, a lot of hope. There’s a lot of positive future in Canadian tennis.
“It’s great to sort of be at the centre and front of that come Sunday. I’m glad that I’ve sort of been leading this charge, the first one to break through and really put these things together.
“But I’m by no means done.”
Shapovalov to play for title
For the second Grand Slam tournament in a row, a Canadian will play for Junior Boys singles championship.
Following in the footsteps of his friend and doubles partner Félix Auger-Aliassime of Montreal at the French Open last month, Denis Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont., qualified for the Wimbledon junior final on Friday with a 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-2 win over Stefano Tsitsipas of Greece.
The 6-foot-4 Tsitsipas (below) served for the match at 6-5 in the second set but Shapovalov, who had just lost his serve on a double fault, broke back when the Greek returned the favour with a double fault of his own on break point.
“He was playing much better than me,” Shapovalov, 17, said of his fellow 17-year-old opponent.
“He was serving very clean, as clean as I’ve seen him serve. But I stayed mentally strong and at the end he collapsed a little bit and that was the difference.”
Tsitsipas, who was the top seed, fell and hurt his arm and took a medical time-out before the start of the third set.
“Like I always say – maybe he was hurt maybe he wasn’t,” the fifth-seeded Shapovalov said. “If you’re starting the match, you’re good enough to play. If you’re too hurt, I wouldn’t show up on the court.”
In Sunday’s final, Shapovalov will take on Alex De Minaur of Australia, who defeated Auger-Aliassime 5-7, 7-6(5), 6-2 in the quarter-finals. Shapovalov has never played De Minaur but Auger-Aliassime has a few times. “He told me the basic stuff about De Minaur,” Shapovalov said of advice he had received from Auger-Aliassime. “He said his forehand is a little bit weaker, which is normal. So I’ll play more to that side, serve big and go for my shots. I’m still going to stick to my game plan but a couple of things he told me I’m going to focus on during the match.”
The singles final will be played on Sunday, possibly at the same time as Milos Raonic is playing in the men’s singles final against Andy Murray. “He’s probably going to be too distracted,” Shapovalov joked about Raonic, “because all the fans are going to be cheering me.”
Raonic will be in Centre Court while the junior boys final is usually played in No. 1 Court. Four years ago in that stadium, Filip Peliwo of Vancouver won the boys singles title over Luke Saville of Australia.
The top-seeded Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime advanced to the semifinals of the doubles event on Friday, beating Youssef Hossam of Egypt and Ergi Kirkum of Turkey 6-0, 7-6(0). In the semifinals they will face No. 3 seeds Miromir Kecmanovic of Serbia and Casper Ruud of Norway.
“We started well and there’s not much to say about the first set,” Auger-Aliassime said about Friday’s quarter-final, “everything went our way. In the second, we had a bit of a let-up to be broken in the first game but we kept our cool and we came back to break serve and then finish things off well in the tiebreak.”
There’s another Canadian in the boys doubles semifinals – Ben Sigouin (left) of Vancouver and his German partner Louis Wessels made the final four with a 7-6(8), 4-6, 6-3 victory on Friday over Lukas Klein of Slovakia and Yosuke Watanuki of Japan.
Seeded fourth, Sigouin, 17, and Wessels, also 17, will face the second seeds, Kenneth Raisma of Estonia and Tsitsipas, in Saturday’s semifinals.
All the Canadian players were hyped up about Raonic’s victory over Roger Federer, with Shapovalov expressing the feelings of many saying, “I’m glad there’s a Canadian in the final. I’m very proud of him.”
The All England Club can hold as many as 45,000 spectators on its busiest days. This picture, taken on the eve of this year’s event, shows the main drag right past the entrance to the club – when nobody’s home.
NOTE: No blog Saturday, back for Milos final on Sunday.
Top photo: Susan Mullane