Maybe the best indication that Milos Raonic was in decent form and good spirits, when he had a hit early Thursday afternoon, was a remark he made looking up into the stands behind the practice courts and spotting yours truly – “Nice job Tom – are you working hard or hardly working?”
One might have expected Raonic to be hardly working after suffering with back issues in his four-set win over Fernando Verdasco on Wednesday, but he didn’t look too uncomfortable as can be seen in the way he lunged for a forehand volley in the picture below.
He was practicing on P2 practice court with his coach Ivan Ljubicic, the former world No. 3 (2006). It was all pretty low key but Raonic hit ground strokes, volleys, serves and specifically had Ljubicic direct approach shots to his backhand so he could work on his passing shots. Clearly, his opponent on Friday, No. 19-ranked Feliciano Lopez, will be targeting in that direction.
The key for Raonic in his 6-2, 6-4, 6-7(5), 7-6(1) win over Verdasco was his ability to hold serve, which he did all 21 times he toed the line.
He only faced four break points the entire match – and all of them at 4-all in the fourth set. On all four he got down to a second serve, and on three of them he was rewarded for aggressive shot-making.
Obviously inhibited and somewhat restricted in his movement during the Verdasco match – at times more than others it appeared – Raonic’s trusty serve was what got him through.
It seemed occasionally like his ‘mph’ was well below his best. He averaged 120 mph on his first serve (compared to 126 in his first match against Tim Smyczek) and 106 on his second serve (104 vs. Smyczek).
“When I saw that I was able to hold serve,” Raonic said about playing Verdasco, “I guess I was always going to give myself some kind of a chance.”
Never the stoutest of competitors, Verdasco may have thought Raonic wouldn’t be able to maintain his form, especially after seeing him treated three times on court by a trainer.
But Lopez will surely have been briefed by his fellow Madrileno (from Madrid) Verdasco and not be distracted in any way by whatever issues could affect Raonic on Friday.
One of the more stylish players on the tour and one who is completely at home at the net and serving-and-volleying, Lopez has been a friend of Raonic’s since the days when Spaniard Galo Blanco coached the promising young Canadian and he was based in Barcelona.
They have been doubles partners twice – in 2011 and 2013 at Indian Wells – and on the latter occasion they upset Daniel Nestor and partner Mahesh Bhupathi.
The Friday third-rounder – with a prospective round-of-16 match on Sunday against Rafael Nadal – will be played on the Grandstand (not before 5 p.m.), which is a court where Raonic has had success over the years and where he beat Verdasco on Wednesday.
Their 3-3 head-to-head shows the match-up is competitive, with Raonic edging out the 33-year-old lefthander 10 to nine in sets won.
The dynamic of the match will be Raonic trying to overpower with his serve and forehand while Lopez relies on his lefty serve and deftly sliced backhand to attempt to disrupt Raonic’s rhythm.
Genie Bouchard tuned up for her Friday third-round US Open singles match by winning a first-round doubles match on Thursday with Russian partner Elena Vesnina by a 7-5, 6-2 score over American Madison Brengle and Tatjana Maria of Germany.
The match was played in a fun spirit before an overflow full house on 1,006-seat Court 4.
Vesnina, who has ranked as high as No. 3 in doubles, won the US and French Opens last year with compatriot Ekaterina Makarova.
“My partner is very good in doubles and it’s very really fun to play with her,” Bouchard said after Thursday’s win. “We had a good crowd for doubles and the crowd was into it as well. Elena’s a great doubles player so I just followed what she said.”
She then recounted an amusing anecdote about their combining. “Elena said she researched my doubles and saw that I won two Wimbledons in a row in juniors,” Bouchard said. “So she said, ‘ok, maybe she can play a little bit of doubles.’ That’s what she told me right before walking on the court.”
Joking she added as if she were talking to Vesnina, ‘you had a lot of confidence in me Googling my results.’”
In the second round, Bouchard and Vesnina will face the sixth-seeded team of Americans Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears.
On Friday, Bouchard’s on-court game face will certainly be different than it was in the relaxed atmosphere of the doubles with the 29-year-old Vesnina.
Basically, she will have little choice because her opponent, Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, is one of the feistiest players on the tour. But then she really doesn’t have much choice being just 5-foot-3.
Currently ranked No. 50 after missing much of the year with a left Achilles problem that required surgery in March, she has a 14-11 record in 2015 but is a much better player than that.
Aged 26, she has ranked No. 31 or higher every year since 2008, peaking at No. 10 in March of 2014 after reaching the Australian Open final (losing to Li Na) two months earlier.
Unlike Bouchard’s first two opponents at this year’s event – Alison Riske and Polona Hercog – Cibulkova has experience playing on big stages and in crucial situations as well as victories over three No. 1 players. She has four career WTA titles.
Although she hasn’t played as much as she would have liked this year, Cibulkova certainly got battle-tested last week in New Haven, reaching the quarter-finals. She defeated Tsvetana Pironkova 7-6(6), 6-7(5), 6-3 and Kristina Mladenovic 2-6, 7-6(1), 7-5 before losing to eventual finalist, No. 6-ranked Lucie Safarova, 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-5.
Bouchard, by contrast played just one match in New Haven, dropping 12 games in a row in a 6-1, 6-0 loss to No. 47-ranked Roberta Vinci. The 32-year-old Italian is a possible next opponent for the winner of the Bouchard – Cibulkova encounter.
Even in her last match at the US Open on Wednesday, Cibulkova was in a dicey situation at 5-all in the second set after dropping the first set 6-3 to No. 260-ranked qualifier Jessica Pegula of the U.S.
Cibulkova and Bouchard, meeting for the first time, both have reputations as diehard fighters on the court. For the struggling Bouchard, who claims to have gained confidence from two wins this week, Cibulkova should provide a bell-weather test of just how much progress she has made.
Shamasdin wins in doubles
Adil Shamasdin of Pickering, Ont, and his Austrian partner Philipp Oswald won their opening round match at the US Open on Thursday, upsetting No. 10 seeds Alexander Peya of Austria and Bruno Soares of Brazil by a 6-3, 6-3 score.
The win allows the No. 70-ranked Shamasdin to complete a career Grand Slam of first-round wins at the four Grand Slams.
In the picture above, the barely 5-foot-11 Shamasdin is smiling because he’s on his toes trying to measure up to his 6-foot-7 partner.
“It feels good,” Shamasdin said about the victory on Court 7. “It’s my first win here at the US Open and it’s nice to get it over a top team. Philipp and I feel pretty good and we actually played a lot of practice sets to figure out what we need to do. Going into the match, we had nothing to lose so we just went out there and played our game and felt pretty good about it.”
He and Oswald, 29 and ranked No. 57, are playing together for the first time in 2015. About the partnership, Shamasdin said, “we complement each other – he has a big serve and I can kind of help him out at the net. He’s such a big guy – and when I dip the ball down at a guy’s feet, he’s all over the net. Our energy levels were good the whole match today, consistent from start to the finish.”
In the second round, Shamasdin and Oswald will play the pairing of Marcus Daniell of New Zealand and Jonathan Marray of Britain.
Shamasdin, 33, is a graduate of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. When he was asked if there were any Ivy Leaguers in the crowd, he LOLed and answered, “probably.”
In women’s doubles, Erin Routliffe (in foreground) and her University of Alabama teammate Maya Jansen were beaten in the first round on Thursday – 6-2, 6-1 by the No. 6 seeds, Americans Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears.
“It was great,” she said about the experience. “They were obviously very tough opponents. We were a little nervous – the first time in a Grand Slam – but we just tried to go out there and hold our own.”
“They returned serve very, very well. I don’t think we’ve ever had a team return our serves like that. They were just super aggressive and just rushed us.”
The 20-year-old Routliffe, from Caledon, Ont., and her American partner are two-time NCAA doubles champions. They won a US Open National playoff to earn a spot in the doubles draw at Flushing Meadows.
When asked when she starts school again, the third-year student in public relations, with a minor in communication studies, laughed and said, “we are in school right now. I’ve been missing a lot of classes.”
Inside the US Open
In the foreground here are courts 6, 5 and 4, and in the background is the work being done to build a new Grandstand stadium, which will be open in 2016.