Winning Another One for His Generation

by: Steve Tignor | January 29, 2016

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Andy Murray's grit, and Milos Raonic's bright future, were on display in Friday's semifinal. (AP)

“It's probably the most heartbroken I’ve felt on court,” Milos Raonic said after losing to Andy Murray, 4-6, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-2 in the Australian Open semifinals on Friday. “But that’s what it is.”

The line was classic Milos: Even in describing the worst moment of his career, he kept his comments concise and his attitude stoical. If you’re holding out hope that the future of tennis will be more dramatic than it is now, Raonic is probably not the man to back. Here he is talking about why he indulged in a rare racquet slam in the fifth set.

“I don’t think that’s like myself to do,” the ever-composed Canadian said, “but sometimes it’s a little bit too much to keep in.”

There was no need to apologize, of course; the heartbreak was understandable. For the better part of three hours, Raonic had appeared to be on his way to the biggest win of his career, at the relatively advanced age of 25, and into his first Grand Slam final. He had jumped on Murray with an early break and pressed the attack throughout; Raonic would finish with 72 winners and win 50 of 74 points at net. He had taken a two-sets-to-one lead by hammering down one of his 23 aces on the night. He'd shown that the newly complete game that had lifted him to wins over Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka this month was not a mirage. He had even, for a second or two, made it feel as if a lost generation of male players was about to be found again.

Then, at the start of the fourth set, Raonic took a medical timeout, and was never the same again. By the fifth, as Murray pulled away, Raonic was grimacing with every stretch of his leg; it turned out that he had aggravated an adductor injury. What had looked like a breakthrough had ended with another breakdown for the long, lanky, injury-prone player. 

“I’m happy with where my tennis is at, I just wish I could,” Raonic said, in what really was a heartbreaking statement.

There were two stories to this semifinal, one that told us something about the present, and one that, possibly, told us something about the future. The present story is that Murray remains a stubborn, versatile, and resilient competitor, who is virtually unbeatable against virtually everyone. With his win over Raonic, Murray is now 76-6 against opponents not named Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer during the last 12 months. 

In beating Raonic in the semis and David Ferrer in the quarters, Murray showed again what makes him so difficult to overcome. Raonic is a bomb server and Ferrer is a baseline grinder, but neither is an opponent that anyone relishes facing. Over the course of three days, Murray took their best shots and outlasted them both. While he has ranted and raved his way through this tournament, against Raonic it was his positive energy (positive for Murray, anyway) in the fourth set that made the difference. Down and on the verge of being out to a surging younger opponent, Murray scrapped like the proud and smart veteran he is. He went after his forehand. He forced his way to the net. He saved break points at 4-3, and held after a marathon game. He pumped his fist, and then, with Lleyton Hewitt watching from the commentator’s box, went for the full lawnmower. “He’s showing his street fighter side,” ESPN commentator and occasional Murray adviser Darren Cahill said. 

“I think at the end of the fourth set I did very well,” Murray said. “I won some of the break points I faced. I came up with good second serves, changed the position of the second serves on a few points. Served close to the lines. That was big.”

Murray took back a match that didn't appear to belong to him, and in the process kept the next generation at bay one more time. The final on Sunday will be Murray's fourth against Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open, and the third straight major final between members of the Big 4. 

The future, once again, is not now. But Raonic’s run at least allows us to ponder a future on the ATP side again. Is Raonic for real? Are Grand Slam titles inevitable for him? Is he a step closer to reaching his long-stated goal of becoming No. 1? 

Raonic has always been good at making his ascent sound inevitable, at presenting himself as the most ambitious and organized member of his cohort, as a young man with his eyes laser-focused on the prize. After losing to Raonic in the fourth round, Wawrinka, who won his own first major in Australia two years ago, was asked about the Canadian’s chances.

“He’s not the only one to have a team around him, to want to win a Grand Slam,” Wawrinka said. “There are lots of others. Maybe he might say it more than others, but that’s not something players pay attention to. Will he have chances to win Grand Slams? Yes. Will he take them? We’ll add all that up at the end of his career.”

“But as you can see, with the [top] players now, it’s very difficult to go out and get them.”

OK, so Wawrinka sounded very much like a man who had just been asked to praise the guy who had beaten him in five sets a few minutes earlier. But the history of Raonic’s generation in these situations is not a hopeful one. In 2014, Grigor Dimitrov blitzed Murray in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, and pushed Djokovic to the limit in the semifinals; since then, Dimitrov has been in steady retreat. Two months later, Kei Nishikori beat Djokovic to reach the U.S. Open final; since then, Nishikori has treaded quarterfinal waters. 

Now it’s Raonic’s turn to make a run up the mountain. Wawrinka’s understandable caution aside, there are reasons to like Raonic’s chances. His serve he has always given him a must-have bailout weapon, but this month he showed tangible progress everywhere else. His volleys suddenly had feel, his returns suddenly had depth, his backhand suddenly had heft—he drilled one 92 m.p.h. against Murray.

“He improve a lot from the baseline, hitting from both sides,” said Gael Monfils, a four-set loser to Raonic in the quarterfinals. “Even the backhand.”

“I think he’s returning much better. He’s playing a bit faster from the baseline...His returns are way better than before.”

Raonic, with his long lope and frozen stare, will never be a drama king on the court. But he’s added a surprising amount of flair and character to his game in a short amount of time. Whether or not he makes himself into the next great player, he seems for now to have made himself into a watchable one. Tennis may have a future, after all.

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