After the Storm

Thursday, March 27, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

MIAMI, Fla.—Playing Milos Raonic must be a lot like getting caught in a mid-July thunderstorm. The first thing you must do is run for cover. The second thing you must do is remember and keep telling yourself that the louder the thunder and the heavier the downpour, the sooner it’s likely to pass overhead.

And for the first set of Raonic’s quarterfinal with Rafael Nadal, the world No. 1 was caught in a real frog drowner.

Raonic pelted Nadal with massive serves and inside-out forehands at the start of this match, bringing to bear all the stored energy and youthful power in his 6’5” frame. He drove Nadal back mercilessly, and for a spell there was scant cover for the 13-time Grand Slam champion to duck under. Even when Nadal had his break-point chances, Raonic doused his hopes.

It’s no wonder Nadal pulled long faces and cast darting, troubled glances in the direction of his support team each time an opportunity slipped away. As he explained later, “The match didn't start the way that you would like, because if I convert one of the opportunities that I had in that first set on the return, the match change completely, no?

“When you start losing opportunities, you feel that you gonna be in trouble, because one game he gonna play aggressive and you will be in his hands, and the next thing is that game arrived.”

Nadal was talking about the final game of the first set, when he was serving at 4-5. He hit two double faults in that game, the second to end the set.

But don’t misunderstand the anxiety Nadal felt through that first set. As the final score (4-6, 6-2, 6-4) indicates, it never morphed into the kind of impatience that can cause a player to come unglued. Nadal was worried, yes, but not to the point where he went to war with himself. This is a man with a great talent for living in the moment, even when it’s raining cats, dogs, and Raonic kick serves.

“I am a very focused player normally,” Nadal said. “And I'm able to be focused and to play every point with the right concentration, knowing that every point has its own value.”

Nadal went on to theorize that instead of wasting energy on “what ifs,” he needed to take extra care to hold serve, trusting that further chances to break would come his way. When they did, he wanted to be sure to be ready.

And come they did. Rafa ratcheted up the pressure in the first game of the second set, and now it was Raonic’s turn to waver, and he did so just as Nadal had—with game-ending double faults in both the first and third games of the second set. That was all the cushion Nadal needed to ensure a third set.

The men then commenced another round of Miami hold ‘em, and Nadal won the third installment as well. In fact, Raonic never saw a break point after the first set, as Nadal slowly but surely lifted his game.

The third set was close for a while, but Raonic hit the nail on the head when he observed that from 3-2 on, Nadal “let loose a little more.” Nadal increased the pressure further on Raonic and broke him down in the seventh game. Raonic had a point to hold for 4-3, but he missed a few of the forehands he’d been making and ended up broken for good.

“I didn't manage to sort of solidify (the game),” Raonic said, “and if anybody's going to take advantage of that, it's probably him.”

This was the first time in four meetings that Raonic won a set from Nadal, who praised the Thornhill Thunderstorm as a player whose game has improved noticeably. Raonic himself professed to be pleased with his progress under the care now of joint coaches Ivan Ljubicic and Riccardo Piatti.

“I feel like this time around I handled myself much better, especially considering the conditions,” Raonic suggested. “I went out there sort of knowing it would be hard to play well (because of the cool weather and swirling wind), and it would be hard for things to go smoothly. . . I dealt with the situation much better than I would have a few weeks ago or few months ago.”

Raonic added that he’s working on “everything,” a pretty broad category that includes trying to dictate with his serve and forehand, taking control, and refusing to yield ground by staying on or near the baseline.

“That's what my focus is,” Raonic said. “I know that's what I need to do to have a chance to beat the top guys in important moments like this and even in bigger moments.”

Part way through his presser, Raonic was reminded that no Canadian had ever beaten the No. 1 player; was he gratified at all that he had come “so close”?

“So close isn't good enough,” he replied, smiling. “There is a lot of things I could say about ‘almost’ in my life.”

The forecast calls for plenty of sunshine in the semifinals tomorrow. Nadal has won 19 straight from his next opponent, Tomas Berdych. But make no mistake about the long range forecast: There will be a mix of sun and clouds, with a strong chance of occasional thunderstorms.

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