Any match between these two is contested in a predictable, serve-dominated mode, and the 3-0 head-to-head in Raonic’s favor is clear evidence that he can generally be relied upon to execute that game more consistently. Consistency, however, was not the hallmark of this encounter.
Raonic, struggling this week with numbness in his right shoulder—and in a larger sense, with tactics throughout a largely lackluster year—had a shaky start today, double-faulting twice in his first service game. Later, at 5-6 on the Canadian’s serve, Gulbis directed two good, deep returns into his opponent’s body for deuce, and Raonic twice double-faulted to give up break and set points.
But Raonic erased both with big serves and took an immediate lead in the tiebreak. Solid second serves and a double-fault from Gulbis—no doubt partly elicited by Raonic standing well inside to return his own second serves—gave the crowd favorite a 4-0 lead. One thoroughly mangled racquet later and Raonic took the first set.
With Gulbis already annoyed by bad calls and sarcastically applauding the crowd’s appreciation of his errors, as well as being consistently robbed of the initiative at the baseline and struggling to capitalize on Raonic’s second serves, a straight-sets result looked likely. Instead, Raonic opened the second set with a poor game, shedding unforced errors from 40-15 up and double-faulting to be broken.
Gulbis promptly responded by producing a run of impeccable serving; at 4-3, 40-0, he had lost just one point on serve throughout the set. Naturally, two unforced errors immediately followed, and although he held, two double-faults at 5-4 forced him to save two break points before producing two more big serves for the set.
Raonic played himself into trouble again in the opening game of the third. Although he commendably stuck to his aggressive tactics, he approached too often to Gulbis’ backhand and had to save a break point with a well-executed serve and volley. The serving struggles which had started to dog his opponent at the end of the second, however, quickly reared their head again, as Gulbis double-faulted three times in a row, then once more—the fourth in five points—to be broken for 1-2.
But once again, Raonic could not press his advantage, capping a poor game with a missed smash to fall back on serve. Yet it was resilience in recovering from his own mistakes as much as moments of inspiration from Gulbis that was the difference in the closing stages; Raonic dug himself out of 0-30 at 3-3, then saved break point at 4-4 before stepping up and attacking from the baseline for deuce at 4-5.
A good second serve return—rarer than gold dust in this match—dragged Gulbis back from game point, and two unforced errors later, it was over. Not a classic encounter, but the fans won’t care and nor, one suspects, will Raonic.