While there were shaky, sketchy passages, essentially Milos Raonic was solid when he needed to be in scoring a 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 victory over Sam Querrey in the quarter-finals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells on Friday.
There was a bit of Alphonse and Gaston to the match as Querrey played a horrible game when he served for the first set at 5-4 (after losing just three points on serve) to get broken. Then Raonic returned the favour at 1-all in the second set, dropping serve on four points to give the 6-foot-6 American the key break he needed on his way to winning it.
During the second set, straight-shooting Goran Ivanisevic, Raonic’s coach, was interviewed in the courtside seats by ESPN’s Pam Shriver.
“I think in general it’s a terrible match” the 2001 Wimbledon champion said.
There’s no question both players performed well below their best at times but Raonic did less wavering – hitting a beauty backhand service return winner to end the first set with an exclamation point. Likewise at the end of the third set after surviving three break points in the final game, he again put down the hammer – a 143 mph serve Querrey couldn’t handle and then a huge forehand he couldn’t reach on the last two points.
The one standout in the Raonic game was a willingness to serve and volley and to go to the net. He was at the net 43 times in the one hour and 51-minute match, winning 21 of those points. Maybe not an impressive ratio – but still a well-calculated mindset.
Raonic has now reached a Masters 1000 semi-final for the first time since the Paris-Bercy event in November, 2016. But he had to give a walkover (quad) to Andy Murray on that occasion. So when he plays Juan Martin del Potro in Saturday’s semi-finals, it will be his first time actually in action in a Masters 1000 final four since losing to Murray in Cincinnati that same year.
There were all kinds of ramifications involved in the Raonic – Querrey duel in in 16,100-seat Stadium 1, extending beyond the two competitors on court. With the win Raonic’s ranking will move up from its current No. 38 to No. 25 – and it can go higher with more success on the weekend. For the 30-year-old Querrey, the loss meant he missed out on a chance to break into the top-10 for the first time in his career. But his loss was good news for Lucas Pouille of France who will become a top-tenner in next Monday’s new rankings. French tennis reporter Eric Salliot and his comrades are celebrating Pouille’s ascension to the top-10, noting that the 24-year-old has not beaten a top-10 player over the last 52 weeks but has won an ATP 500 event (Vienna) and three ATP 250s (Budapest, Stuttgart and Montpelier). Pouille becomes the 12th Frenchman to break into the top-10 putting France No. 4 on the all-time list behind the USA with 32 players, Spain (18), Sweden (17) and one ahead of Argentina (11).
Raonic remains the lone Canadian male – a high of No. 3 in November, 2016 – to have reached the elite group of 10 atop the ATP rankings.
He entered the BNP Paribas Open having a 1-3 record for the year – just four matches played heading into Indian Wells which compares to 12 (10-2) in 2017, 10 (9-1) in 2016 and 16 (11-5) in 2015. But in 2014 a Morton’s Neuroma foot issue (requiring surgery in May) limited him and he had played only 3 (2-1) matches before Indian Wells. But he managed to wind up that season with his second best career year-end ranking – No. 8.
“It means a lot, it’s been a rough road to here but this week and the last 10 days it’s been very positive,” he said in a post-match TV interview Friday. “I’m grateful for it and hopefully I can keep it going.”
It was anything but pretty for Raonic up until Querrey served for the first set at 5-4.
“I wasn’t putting any balls in,” Raonic said about his less than stellar first set at the start. “I made him play a few and he sort of started to doubt himself. I just made him have to beat me there and he wasn’t able to.”
He was realistic enough to recognize there was some good fortune in Querrey suddenly getting a little mushy – obvious in two badly missed forehands to start that 10th game of the first set. “If I don’t get lucky like I did at the end of that first set, it’s a very different storyline,” Raonic admitted.
While things seesawed with Raonic performing subpar on serve to get broken twice in the second set – double-faulting to lose the seventh game trailing 4-2 – there was a sense he’s simply a better player than Querrey, with superior grit and nerves in the critical moments. His highest ranking is No. 3 to No. 11 for Querrey – and Raonic has now been to eight Masters 1000 event semifinals in 53 tries while Querrey, three years older, is now 0-70.
It has crossed more than a few peoples’ minds that Raonic’s opening-round, blockbuster match-up against fellow-Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, 17, may have been the jolt he needed to kick-start his tournament. He won that one 6-4, 6-4.
“There was some kind of sense of relief to get through that,” he conceded, “especially with not just everybody else but myself, questioning myself about how things were going to come along.”
With his unflattering record for 2018 entering Indian Wells, Raonic really did not know what to expect of himself. But he offered an interesting observation about the current state of men’s tennis and his place in it.
“Tennis is a little different now than it was two, three years ago,” he said. “There’s a lot more openings in draws. There has been one guy (i.e. Roger Federer) that’s been doing consistently well. Whereas, before it was always two, three, sometimes even – if you look further back – four guys that were sort of shortening the draws on everybody.
“So it opened up, and I just made the most of it.”
That’s happening after he had a terrible run of bad luck – and on Friday Raonic enumerated all the injury woes he has had to deal with since the beginning of 2017. “Let’s go down the list,” he said. “Right adductor, left glut at the beginning of the year. Then I tore my hamstring beginning of February.
“After Wimbledon I had to have wrist surgery. Through the summer I tried to play a few events, tried to treat the issue. That wasn’t possible. I had surgery just before the US Open. Was hoping to start my offseason in the early weeks of October. No, early weeks of November.
“And then in November I had – if I hurt my knee. I hurt my meniscus, so I couldn’t play for six weeks. Started training just before the Australian Open, and I’m here today.”
Summing up, he used one word, “it’s been a catastrophe.”
He can continue putting things right in Saturday’s semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro, a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 winner over Philipp Kohlschreiber in Friday’s other quarter-final.
Raonic has a 2-1 head-to-head edge over the 6-foot-6 Argentine – winning their last meeting 6-3, 7-6(6) in the Delray Beach semi-finals a year ago.
Del Potro has started slowly and looked vulnerable early in his last two matches – also dropping the opening set of his round-of-16 match 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-3 against compatriot Leonardo Mayer on Wednesday. The 29-year-old Argentine is dealing with a back issue and said after beating Kohlschreiber, “my body feels tight.”
But he comes into Indian Wells off a title at the Mexican Open ATP 250 event in Acapulco and is on a nine-match winning streak. The match is scheduled second after an 11 a.m. start (2 p.m. ET in Canada) on Saturday – approximately 4 p.m. ET in Canada.
Raonic now has a 19-6 record at the BNP Paribas Open, easily the best of all his Masters 1000 events – including being runner-up (Novak Djokovic) in 2016 and a semi-finalist (Federer) in 2015.
“I just have a personal calm at this event maybe compared to others,” he said. “It’s a little bit quieter here. It’s easier to be around the tennis. You don’t have to fight through traffic to get here. You get here with ease. So I think that gives me a personal calm.”
And personal bests as well, on court at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
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