It was an insurmountable combination for Milos Raonic against Roger Federer in the Wimbledon quarter-finals on Wednesday – the magnificent Swiss at the top of his game and himself just not quite the player he was in winning their five-set duel in last year’s semifinals.
The result in Centre Court was a 6-4, 6-2, 7-6(4) victory for Federer playing inspired tennis in the first two sets. He was brilliant and his virtuosity may have reached its peak when he hit a break-out, breath-taking backhand outright winner that skimmed the baseline to win the point to 5-1 in the second set, leading to a loud communal ‘hum’ of admiration and awe from the stunned, reverent Centre Court crowd.
A point later in a rally he hit a bunch of hyper-aggressive forehands in a manner that can best be described as a ‘shot-gunning’ – chasing Raonic side to side with red-lining extremes of pace and accuracy.
And when Federer made it 3-3 – after trailing 0-3 – in the third set tiebreak, the crowd broke into an unrestrained chant of “ROGER-ROGER-ROGER.”
The Federer renaissance was in full flight and essentially there wasn’t much Raonic could do against such an irresistible force – the same one that has now allowed him to go 23-0 in matches at Grand Slam and Masters 1000 events in 2017.
“He was extremely sharp mentally always in the right moments – just on top of things,” Raonic said. “He kept a very high gear the whole entire time without giving (me) any real glimpses.”
Federer, almost always a straight-shooter analyst of his own and his opponent’s game, summed up the comparison between this year at Wimbledon versus Raonic to last year, saying “I’m playing very well. I’m rested. I’m fresh. I’m confident too. Then great things do happen. Confidence is a huge thing.”
Contrasting the Raonic 2017 with the one who beat him a year ago, he said, “I thought he was exactly in the zone last year. He’s not had the easiest of years himself. He hasn’t had enough matches of late. I could see that in Milos’ game as well. He was not playing as well as he was last year.”
While it’s highly debateable whether Raonic could have beaten Federer with better preparation, it is probably fair to say that much of what happened to him at this year’s Wimbledon could be traced back to a fateful 7-6(5), 7-6(8) loss to Thanasi Kokkinakis in the opening round at the Queen’s Club tournament on grass two weeks before Wimbledon. Raonic went zero for nine in converting break points during the match that day while Kokkinakis never got beyond 30 on the Raonic serve but still managed to pull out two tiebreaks – the second after Raonic had three set points leading 6-3.
It was the kind of match a player probably loses once a year and, with it happening two weeks before Wimbledon, Raonic was robbed of the confidence he got a year ago when he reached the final of Queen’s Club and came very close to beating Andy Murray before losing in three sets.
The tuning up and fine tuning that he should have gotten at Queen’s Club in three, four or five matches, he had to try to get on the practice courts. And there it’s never quite the same as actual tournament competition.
In terms of his game, Raonic was not overly critical of himself, but he did say at one point, “could I have been a bit more efficient at the net, a few volleys? Yes. But he kept the pressure on me. It wasn’t just like I was sitting there volleying and there was nobody at the other side of the net. He was doing great things to keep pressure on me all the time.”
Raonic was 27/50 (54 per cent) in net approaches – not disastrous but if that strategy was to work against Federer he would have to have been well above 60 per cent.
As for the vaunted Raonic serve, Federer said about his own returning game, “he didn’t serve as well as he did last year. I think he was hitting much bigger second serves as well. Last year he must have hit 10, 20 second serves at 130 (mph). This year he probably didn’t do any of those. (He) had a different mindset going in. I don’t know if it was tactics or feel.
“Then returning second serve, I just felt like I could somewhat get a read on his serve. Today it was like that. Probably the next match, it’s going to be just whistling past me. I think I was very clear and I saw things very well. That helped me returning his serve, as well. From the baseline, I felt like I had the upper hand,
which wasn’t necessarily the case last year, which helped me to stay more calm.”
Likely Raonic’s best hope in the match was to get Federer to a tiebreak, especially in one of the first two sets, and then exert scoreboard pressure with his serve. But that didn’t happen when Federer broke in the fifth game of the first set and then in the first and fifth games of what turned out to be a one-sided second set.
Federer didn’t face a break point until the second game of the third set, saving it when Raonic misfired with a backhand on a return of a 119 mph first serve.
In the eighth game with Federer needing to hold to avoid a break and allowing Raonic to serve for the set, he faced four break points and played boldly on all of them – hardly giving Raonic a sniff.
Raonic’s last chance came in the tiebreak when he led 3-0 – two mini-breaks – but Federer found another gear to win five points in a row and seven of the next eight to wrap up his 89th match win in 100 matches at Wimbledon.
The No. 1 topic in tennis in 2017 has been Federer’s remarkable return from a six-month break after last year’s Wimbledon. Many observers believe he is playing better than ever. As regards that subject, he commented Wednesday, “I don’t see myself playing better than a few years ago. But I always hope to improve every year. Think it’s definitely different ever since my (2016) injury. If I’m playing better this year than I have in ’14, ’15 when I had great runs at Wimbledon here. I just ran into Novak, who was red hot. Honestly it was difficult to come past him for anybody, especially in the big matches.
“I’m just very happy I’m still doing so well. ‘Am I surprised?’ Maybe a little bit. But the plan was always to hopefully be strong also later on in my career.”
Raonic, 26, can certainly use the nearly 36-year-old Federer as an inspiration. On whether he took any consolation in making the third set much more competitive than the first two, Raonic said, “I think I had more glimpses than he did in the third set. I just tried to put it all out there. Obviously Roger is a phenomenal player. When he’s ahead, even more phenomenal because he plays more freely. I sort of tried to claw my way back into it – gave myself a few opportunities. He played them well. That’s how sort of the cookie crumbles.”
Raonic, whose No. 7 ranking will probably fall to No. 9 after the loss and the failure to defend runner-up points from a year ago, could see a ray of sunshine resulting from this Wimbledon.
“The one thing I’m most happy with is I have gotten through another set of tournaments healthy,” he said. “Until really after Paris (Roland Garros), where I played (five tournaments) consecutively, I didn’t really have a chance to think about tennis. Everything was, ‘how am I doing things? What am I doing? Am I getting out of the end of each week healthy?’
“It’s a relief now with a certain training block and recovery block, that I have the pieces in place. That I’m doing the things, at least what seems to be in the right combination at this moment, and I can just focus on tennis.
“I’ve got to give it time for it to really work out. Hopefully it gives me a little bit of mental relief that I don’t have to always be worrying about how I’m going to end each week.”
His plans now are to possibly play the ATP 500 in Washington the week before Rogers Cup in Montreal. That event at home in Canada, beginning August 7th, could be an opportunity to mount a new assault on a men’s tour that appears a little more open these days with Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic struggling. Although the same cannot be said about Rafael Nadal – and especially a certain Roger Federer.
BRANSTINE REACHES QUARTER-FINALS
Carson Branstine defeated Mai Hontana of Japan 6-4, 6-2 on Wednesday to advance to the final eight of the girls singles.
The win over the 17-year-old Japanese may be overshadowed by her aggravating a chronic right knee problem in the final game of the opening set. She took a medical time-out and had additional wrapping to an already bandaged knee.
In the second set, she dropped the first two games before winning six in a row but was still frequently pulling up and hobbling during and after points. Her big serve and powerful forehand allowed her to dominate and she finished with a total 31 winners for the match.
Branstine, from Montreal and Orange County, California, had a similar knee issue in the consolation of the Traralgon warm-up tournament in January before the Australian Open. That required a few days rest.
It remains to be seen how she will be on Thursday against a tough opponent in No. 3 seed Claire Liu of the U.S., the 17-year-old Californian who was runner-up in the French Open juniors, defeating Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., along the way.
The good news for Branstine is that she was able to go out later and play her opening round doubles match with Ukrainian partner Marta Kostyuk. Top-seeded, they defeated British wild cards Maria Budin and Eliz Maloney 6-2, 6-1 and next face the Swiss pairing of Ylena In-Albon and Simona Waltert.
The reigning French Open mixed doubles champions – Gabriela Dabrowski of Ottawa and Rohan Bopanna reached the quarter-finals of the Wimbledon mixed on Wednesday with a 7-6(5), 6-2 victory over the Croatian duo of Ana Konjuh and Nicolas Mektic.
Seeded No. 10, they will play the Wimbledon mixed doubles defending champions, Heather Watson of Britain and Henri Kontinen of Finland, in the final eight on Thursday.
Daniel Nestor and Slovenian partner Andreja Klepac, the No. 11 seeds, were eliminated in the third round on Wednesday, beaten 6-3, 6-7(4), 7-5 by Andre Begeman of Germany and Nicole Melichar of the U.S.
LONDON POST CARD
The Wimbledon Cricket Club is located right across Church Road from the All England Club. During The Championships its grounds are used for hospitality facilities and parking, reportedly earning it about 650,000 pounds ($1.06 million Can.) for the fortnight. On the left here is the clubhouse of the Wimbledon Cricket Club, which has facilities for cricket, (lawn) tennis, squash and field hockey.
(NOTE: No blog on Thursday, back on Friday.)