By the fourth round of the 2017 Australian Open, one had to wonder if Milos Raonic would actually win his first grand slam title. World No. 1 Andy Murray had just exited, joining defending champion and No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic.
Raonic, seeded third, was the next highest ranked player left in the men’s draw.
But this men’s tournament will be remembered for the resurgence of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The last time the two were in the semifinal of a major was the 2014 Australian Open.
Nadal crushed Raonic in the quarterfinals on Wednesday night in Melbourne 6–4, 7–6, 6–4 to end the Canadian’s hopes.
Raonic has talked about the need to move forward and shorten the points against the top players who are at a bigger advantage in long baseline rallies. To this end, he joined forces with Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion known for his serve-and-volley game. However, Raonic got sucked into battling Nadal from the baseline, which is a losing proposition.
The match was essentially decided in the second set when Raonic squandered six set points. Nadal took the set on his first set point in the tiebreak. Up to that point, Raonic had won his last four tiebreaks in majors, while Nadal had lost his last four.
Raonic’s play was slowed by a nagging adductor (upper thigh/hip area) injury.
His injury takes nothing away from a vintage Nadal performance, however, it is another opportunity lost for a man who is at the top of the list to be the next first-time grand slam winner.
Raonic was coming off his best Australian Open performance last year when he reached the semis. He ended 2016 losing to Murray in the longest match of the year at the ATP Tour World Finals and reached the No. 3 ranking, his highest ever.
Even the courts at the Australian Open were tilted in his favour. They are said to be playing fast which promotes a more attacking style of play.
But Nadal has had his fair share of success on faster courts with two U.S. Open and two Wimbledon titles. He also won the Australian Open in 2009.
The untimely injury bug at the slams is becoming a persistent problem for Raonic. After the tough loss to Nadal, he said he didn’t want to depress himself thinking too much about it.
Raonic didn’t have the same pop on his serve, although some of that has to do with Nadal being one of the game’s best returners. Against Nadal, he managed just 4.6 aces per set, the lowest average in his five matches of the tournament.
During the tournament, Raonic battled through a bad fever, though it didn’t show in his imperious play to reach the quarters. “I think I did it with a lot more conviction this year than I did last year,” Raonic said after beating Spain’s Roberto Bautista-Agut in the fourth round.
The other factor emerging from Raonic’s losses is the amount of pressure he puts on himself. He has stated many times that his goal is to win a slam and be No. 1 in the world.
In the second set after not converting his first two set points, Raonic thinks he rushed in the tiebreak.
“I made two pretty poor mistakes off balls that didn’t have much in the middle of the court on my forehand side,” he said in his press conference after the match.
“I think at that point I just put it a little bit too much on myself.”
Raonic echoed a familiar refrain after his grand slam exits.
“It was quite a draining two and a half weeks,” he said.
Tennis is all about managing pressure in big matches against top opponents. In majors, his record against Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, and Stan Wawrinka is 2–8. Overall, against the quintet with 49 major titles, his record is 9–37.
Raonic is scheduled to play Davis Cup in Ottawa against Andy Murray and Great Britain on Feb. 3–5, but following his injury, he’s no longer sure. He said it’s “very much up in the air.”
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