Milos Raonic’s rocket of a serve is, by nature, aggressive. And considering his consistency and place in the ATP packing order, it’s mostly a given that it will be effective in every match he plays.
What isn’t as certain, though, is whether the rest of his similarly aggressive game will be as effective. Raonic has improved his effort and focus once his opponent has had a chance to hit the ball by a significant margin over the last two years, during which he’s been a near-constant resident in the Top 20. But while the Canadian can completely control how he serves, he doesn’t have the same ownership of his forehands, backhands, and service returns, which are subject to his opponents’ actions and comprise the bulk of the match.
That said, when Raonic’s aggressiveness and effectiveness on the ground matches, or even comes close to, that when he’s tossing the ball in the air, it’s a sight to see. Unless, of course, you’re on the receiving end of it, which Novak Djokovic was for the better part of two sets today.
Raonic’s impressive form frustrated the world No. 2 to great lengths today; just eight games in, at 4-4, Djokovic slammed his Head frame onto the clay. It pushed the Serb to two tiebreakers, a safe haven for star servers and a dark alley for most others. And it surely played a part in Djokovic going for too much in the first of those tiebreakers, which he led 3-0 but surprisingly lost.
But it also ultimately forced Djokovic to raise his game. He did that just in time, winning the final four points of a second-set tiebreaker he once led 2-1 but soon trailed 3-4. With that boost of confidence, Djokovic went on to break his somewhat deflated adversary in the final set’s first game, and made that lead stick through the end of this 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-3 semifinal.
The power player from Thornhill, Ontario was a thorn in Djokovic’s side for most of the day. He kept a close distance on the scoreboard, caught lines, scuffed the clay with a variety of big forehands and backhands, and wiped away Djokovic’s first six break point chances. And when Djokovic finally did break serve, for a 3-1 second-set break, Raonic roared back with his first break in the very next game. It wasn’t until the match’s waning moments that Raonic looked resigned to defeat, something that stared Djokovic in the face for a brief stretch.
But as he’s done in three consecutive three-set matches, Djokovic didn’t blink. He matched Raonic, hold for methodical hold, after they traded breaks in the second set, and refused to let the tiebreaker get away from him as he did earlier. With his innumerable abilities, Djokovic has room for error against almost anyone he plays. The opposite holds true for his opponents. And when Raonic made two costly, ugly errors at 4-3 and 4-4 in the second-set tiebreaker, Djokovic pounced.
So, no, Djokovic didn’t blink today. Rather, he stared—in disbelief—at some of Raonic’s shotmaking. Raonic reminded me of John Isner circa 2012, who beat Djokovic in the semifinals of Indian Wells with a similarly aggressive mindset and level of execution. But when Djokovic earned a crucial break to open the third set, it foretold this big man’s eventual but expected fall.
Less assured, and facing a more comfortable foe, Raonic plummeted into a rare 0-40 deficit when serving to stay in the match at 3-5. By this time, shadows had slowly engulfed the rusty red court, just as Djokovic did to Raonic over three tense hours of play.