Preparing to hit a tennis ball an opponent lobs in your direction and preparing to hit a tennis ball you yourself toss in the air are two different things, but it was still surprising to see Milos Raonic miss two consecutive overheads today against Andy Murray. He is, after all, one of the best servers on tour, hitting second serves harder than many players' smashes. To put it another way, Raonic's adversaries don't want to see the ball above his head.
But we need to consider the situation: Raonic, who had just broken Murray in the previous game, was serving for the match and a spot in the Barcelona semifinals. This was no ordinary service game, even if the actual serving wasn't the usual crucible of pressure those with the finish line in sight must contend with.
No, Raonic's biggest challenge was after he served, during the rallies. They took place on clay, which theoretically should detract from Raonic's sizable groundstrokes. And the man on the other side of the net, Murray, specializes in placing the ball exactly where he wants once an exchange settles in—something that happens with greater frequency on clay. Indeed, a series of Murray shots gave him the opening necessary to collect a point for 15-40, and it looked as if Raonic, who won the first set, had let his chance slip. Seconds later, he was broken.
Broken—but not beyond repair. After two more games (both holds) and a tiebreaker, Raonic scored his first win over a member of the present ATP Top 4, 6-4, 7-6 (3). It puts Raonic into the final four, where he'll face either David Ferrer or Feliciano Lopez, two Spaniards who one would suspect enjoy playing in Barcelona. But after Raonic's upset of clay expert Nicolas Almagro yesterday, and today's conquest, it would be rash to discount the Canadian's chances.
Raonic's play this week, and throughout today's match with Murray, illustrate just how much old tennis stereotypes are invalid. Here is a tall man, seemingly ill-suited for the rigors of clay-court labor, facing one of the best movers in the sport—and, it should be said, someone who honed his game nearby. But Raonic's serve and forehand are so potent that no playing surface is exempt from their effectiveness, and no player is exempt from their wraths. Raonic won 94 percent of his first-serve points in the first set, meaning Murray required almost flawless play on his serve to survive. The Scot offered Raonic but two break points, but one lost was enough to tilt the opener away from him.
Murray didn't help his cause with his slice backhand, a shot that doesn't translate to every court. At least not today on clay against Raonic, who launched himself into those slow-moving, sitting-high shots to pound forehands. He did that in the opening point of the tiebreaker, and then connected on an overhead—an ominous sign for Murray. After considering "telling" Murray to play moonballs from my couch, I held my tongue.
I instead watched Murray strike a few careless backhands into the net. Unable to hit through Raonic, Murray appeared indecisive in these moments, which might explain the errors. But Raonic, from start to finish, was clearly the superior player. Fittingly, the contest ended on a lengthy rally, a sequence that typically goes Murray's way. It allowed Raonic to pass an important milestone in his young career—beating one of the true elites. Can a clay-court final, another yet-to-be-completed achievement for Raonic, be next?