Peering down at the blue court for traces of a ball mark, Donald Young resembled a fisherman scanning a lake for signs of life beneath the surface. When Young wasn't lunging for Milos Raonic's serve or searching for its trail, he heard it splashing off the back wall.
Pulling the serve-and-volley out from under his single sleeve, Raonic ripped 15 aces, did not face a break point and spiked waves of turbulence breaking in the final game of both sets for a 6-4, 7-5 victory that sent him into his first final of the year in Washington, DC.
Dipping into the depths of an ATP semifinal for the first time in three years, Young confronted the hazards of the Canadian's wall-banging serve. Raonic snapped off three massive aces — 141 mph down the middle, 138 mph wide and a 135 mph blast — to hold for 2-1 setting the tone for foreboding service games that sometimes seemed to last as long as changeovers.
The 73rd-ranked American stayed in step firing his lefty forehand down the line to make the bigger man move. When he's playing well, Young combines a sculptor's feel with impeccable timing that enables him to take the ball on the rise and rob the opponent of reaction time. When stretched, Young can short-arm his backhand, losing depth on that shot. He netted a backhand to face break point in the fourth game, but buried an ace down the middle to save it, holding with his second ace for 2-all.
The server permitted just three points in the next five games, then Young blinked at 4-5. After successive love holds, Young hesitated momentarily on a short, low forehand and slapped it into net. He compounded that miscue spinning a nervous second serve into net to face triple set point then donated the break — and gifted the set — at love launching a backhand beyond the baseline.
The Wimbledon semifinalist was untouchable on first serve — he won 16 of 17 first-serve points in the opener and 17 of 19 first-serve deliveries in the second — and backed it up serving-and-volleying at times to exploit Young's tendency to block back returns. Benefits are both short term — the sight of the 6-foot-5 Canadian charging forward behind that explosive serve shrunk court space for Young to target — and long term. Raonic knows he can't run with the Big Four in rallies and is working to sharpen his transition skills to impose his offense and shorten rallies against the elite.
Driving a forehand down the line to set up a crunching backhand crosscourt, Young celebrated shaking his Prince racquet like a rattle at 3-all in the second set. Raonic responded showing high hops throwing down a smash followed by a smooth serve-and-volley winner he capped with a textbook high backhand volley for 4-3.
The American's lone challenge to the second seed's serve came in the ninth game when he reached 30-all. Raonic's mantra this week has been "serve well and try to dictate the center of the court" and he put that plan into action. Hammering a heavy inside-out forehand, Raonic forced Young so far wide he was nearly wading into court-side flowers blocking a stretch forehand into net. Raonic quickly stepped around a mid-court ball and ripped a crosscourt forehand, setting up a smash to hold for 5-4.
Arriving in DC on a four-match losing streak, Young won four matches this week, beating three seeds in the process. That may not sound like a breakthrough, but given DY won just five matches in all of 2012, ending that season in near ranking oblivion at No. 190, this is the week that could help him turn the corner. Then again, I spouted that same theory after Young beat Stan Wawrinka in a thriller en route to the 2011 U.S. Open fourth round, a result he backed up with a final run in Bangkok. Young will wake up as the second highest-ranked American man—and most interesting to watch—on Monday morning. If he can improve that sometime shallow second serve, use the slice backhand when stretched at times and give those voices in his head some positive reinforcement to chew on, he can continue to rise. Or he can give in to the self-sabotage and continue a streaky path that's resulted in a 53-101 career record.
Blasting a forehand return to reach double match point, Raonic sealed the 75-minute match when Young netted a backhand. Raonic has not dropped serve in his last three wins and has not dropped a set in the tournament. The seventh-ranked Canadian will face either compatriot Vasek Pospisil or sixth-seeded Frenchman Richard Gasquet in Sunday's final. Raonic, who is 5-5 in 10 career finals, is bidding for his first title since he beat Gasquet and Tomas Berdych back-to-back to win Bangkok last September.