If it looks like a hard court and plays like a hard court, can we still call it a clay court? That’s what you might have wondered watching Milos Raonic’s impressively routine 6-4, 6-4 win over David Nalbandian today in Madrid. This was fast-paced, serve-based tennis from both ends. Raonic won 27 of 27 points in which he made his first serve, and faced no break points on the day. Nalbandian, depite never really getting into the match, wasn't far behind on his own serve. He won 12 of his first 13 first-ball points.
Otherwise, though, Raonic was the stronger player in all areas. He broke in the opening game with a slice backhand approach on one point and a belted forehand winner on the next. That was all he would need, as Nalbandian had no luck trying to stand close to the baseline for his return of serve. This is what makes Raonic especially tough to break. If you stand in, it’s hard to handle his pace; but if you move back for extra time, you won’t be able to reach his slider out wide in the deuce court, and you’ll be pushed into the next county by his high kick into the ad court. Two weeks ago in Barcelona David Ferrer stood in and beat Raonic; Nalbandian, in these quick conditions, couldn’t make it happen. Serving for the set at 5-4, Raonic hit a service winner, two aces, and another service winner. At 0-1 in the second, he responded to a nice crosscourt pass from Nalbandian by smacking two aces. He dominated with the shot despite getting just 59 percent of his first serves in.
It wasn’t just the serve that Raonic showed off today. The Canadian has trained in Barcelona and logged some time on Spanish clay over the last two years, and he was patient today with his ground strokes when he needed to be. At 2-1, 30-30 in the first, Raonic stayed relaxed and guided a forehand up the line with plenty of margin for a winner. Early in the second, he came up with two deft sliding forehand pick-ups from the baseline. Serving for the match, Raonic gave us a little bit of everything: A service winner, a driving backhand that surprised Nalbandian, a forehand winner, and an ace to close.
These would seem to be ideal conditions for Raonic, who is coming off wins over Andy Murray and Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona, and who now faces Roger Federer. Granted, Nalbandian had a hand in his own defeat today, most prominently with his double fault at break point at 4-4 in the second set. But part of the reason for that double fault was that Raonic, who had mostly been content to sit back and get his returns in court, was threatening to run around and crack his big forehand on this point. Raonic is more dangerous than your average power player because he can hit at top speed, yet he also knows how to change gears and paces.
Raonic lost his only match with Federer 6-4 in the third at Indian Wells two months ago. From the thin air to the color of the court to the pace of the ball, conditions should be similar in Madrid, and it will be a tough opening-round test for the world No. 3.