Indian Wells: Tsonga d. Raonic

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Moments after he responded to a match point by whacking a double fault, Milos Raonic had to be informed by the umpire that his match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was officially over. Granted, the scoreboard on Stadium 2 was out (as was the video screen tracking the Hawk-Eye system), but it’s still pretty hard to digest the fact that Raonic wasn’t aware the match had ended.

Yet it seemed an appropriate finale to a match that Raonic blew—really, screwed up about a royally as that can be done, against a guy who’s more than capable of taking full advantage of any glitch, large or small. Thus, No. 8-seeded Tsonga advanced at Raonic’s expense, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Both men had outstanding days at the service line. Handfuls of games went by in under two minutes, though I can’t give you an official elapsed time on this one because the match clock was also out for a good part of the final set. Yet there wasn’t a single tiebreaker—this from the two men who in their only previous meeting, at the 2012 Olympics, combined to serve up 40 aces that helped drive the match into overtime (Tsonga ultimately won it, 6-3, 3-6, 25-23).

What we had instead of tiebreakers was a pair of puzzling collapses by Raonic. Although he was the underdog (seeded No. 17), he essentially had control of the match up until the final game of the second set. Thereafter, it slipped out of his hands as inexorably as if it were water.

Soon after the men began firing bombs at each other, it looked like Tsonga would be in for a long afternoon. Raonic’s serve is so imposing that he’s gone beyond the serve-and-volley mentality—why risk charging to net like an angry rhino when you can just hit the serve, take two steps into the court, bounce on the balls of your feet, and then just cream the desperate, wounded duck service return? Raonic did this time and again through the first two sets, and if it wasn’t especially exciting to watch, it kept Tsonga thoroughly at bay (Raonic converted 84 percent of his first-serve points).

Meanwhile, Tsonga appeared sluggish and hampered by some trouble in his left knee, so much so that he took an injury timeout. Raonic broke him in the fifth game and lost just three points on serve in his next three service games—up until he had his first set point at 40-15. In a weirdly prophetic turn of events, Raonic mangled an easy forehand and botched a routine smash to fall back to deuce. He did win the next two points, but the amateurish lapse was an omen.

Tsonga began to gather his game in the second set. Although Raonic continued to dominate, Tsonga began to put more daylight between his serves and his opponents’ returns. Still, by the end of the game that made it 5-5, Raonic had teased his first-serve conversion rate up to 75 percent (he would finish at an excellent 70 percent for the match), and had lost all of three points on his serve—one of those a double fault.

Thus, Raonic’s collapse after Tsonga dished out four straight unreturnable serves to go up 6-5 was nothing less than shocking. In that 12th game, Raonic made three consecutive errors to fall behind 0-40. He fended off the first break point, Tsonga’s first of the match, with a service winner. Then he made a final, inside-out forehand error to lose the set.

Alright, you may think, the kid got a little tight when he was on the brink of pulling off the upset. He still had another set with which to redeem himself.

But that thinking didn’t factor in the fact that Tsonga also has a huge serve and a generally explosive game. As the third set unfurled, Tsonga looked energized and confident, while Raonic began to lose his touch. Up to that point, Raonic had returned significantly more successfully than Tsonga. But in the third set he had real trouble making inroads on Tsonga’s serve; the Frenchman lost just four points in his first four service games.

Raonic, though, was chugging along just as effectively. But after another love hold by Tsonga for 5-4, Raonic essentially reprised his sins of the previous set. At 30-15 in his next service game, he flubbed his money shot, the inside-out forehand. He lost the next point as well, when he attacked behind a so-so forehand approach but cut the backhand volley into the net.

What, match point? Already? Against me?

Presumably, Raonic was so discombobulated by the time he stepped up to deliver that double fault that he couldn’t even remember the score. I’ll bet that right now, he wishes he could also banish that final score from his memory bank.

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