INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—The first highly-anticipated matchup of the 2012 BNP Paribas Open, between Roger Federer and Milos Raonic, lived up both to its billing and its expected result. Federer has been sick, and Raonic is coming off a recent title in San Jose, but the 30-year-old future Hall-of-Famer reminded us one more time exactly why he remains the favorite against players a decade his junior with a 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-4 win.
Why, exactly? Let’s start with clutch serving, a Federer specialty. He’s never been the biggest or the most unbreakable server, but few players come up with first balls when they need them the way he does. This was true even in the first set, which Federer lost. The only break point of that set was earned by Raonic at 2-2; Federer erased it with, naturally, his first ace.
Fast forward to 4-3 in the third set. Federer has just broken, but Raonic, swinging more freely with a little less to lose, has hit two good returns to go up 15-30. Federer stops that tiny run with two good first serves, including a service winner to hold. Two games later, with Federer serving for the match at 5-4, Raonic again opens with a winning return. And again Federer cranks up the first serve, hitting three of them in a row, including two service winners, to end it.
On the other side of the net, Federer’s return was just as crucial. After failing to earn a break point in the first, the man who has faced down, and gotten back, a million cannonballs from Andy Roddick gradually began to get a read on the Raonic missile. By the start of the third, he was timing it well enough that it appeared to be just a matter of games before the breakthrough. It finally came at 3-3. Federer started that game with a sharp crosscourt return of a first serve to go up 0-15, and he finished it with a block backhand return (of another first serve) that crawled over the net and gave him the open court for a winning pass to break. A novice Federer observer might say that return was a slightly lucky stab, but it’s really his version of Novak Djokovic’s go-for-broke forehand return—at a certain point, if you make it enough times, it’s no longer lucky. Federer has a knack for putting returns, even reflex returns, in tough spots.
As for Raonic, a couple of observations. Over the course of three points in the pressure-cooker first-set tiebreaker, he showed us the heights that he could potentially climb. At 3-3, he flipped a backhand winner up the line. At 4-3, he earned the only mini-break of the tiebreaker with another excellent backhand up the line. Two points later, at 5-4, with the set on his proverbial racquet, Raonic made his most brazen move of the night. He served and volleyed, and came up with a difficult backhand volley winner off a floating Federer return for 6-4. A point later the set was his.
It took exactly one game for Raonic to lose his grip. Serving in the opening game of the second set, with a lead on Roger Federer, he hiccupped—not choked, but hiccupped. It was enough. At 30-30, Raonic dumped a forehand into the net, and on break point he came in behind a short forehand approach and was promptly passed. From there, the serve and backhand that had been so key for him in the first set began to falter, and Federer began to move him across the baseline. That early break must have helped Federer put any first-set disappointment behind him, because both of his ground strokes came to life. Mixing his forehands into each corner and never forgetting the drop shot, he made a point of getting his lanky opponent running from one sideline to another, and beyond. Up 3-1, he sealed the set with a terrific surprise backhand down the line and another forehand pass.
Business as usual for Federer? In some ways, but not in one way, at least for anyone who has watched him play Rafael Nadal over the years. In their matches, Federer has been profligate with his break point chances. He was greedy with them tonight. He converted his first break chance of the second set, and his only one of the third.
Clutch serves, well-timed returns, great passing shots, hooking forehands inside-out and inside-in, and break chances taken. This really was a good night for Milos Raonic. He learned a lot about how to win a tennis match.