In beating Filip Krajinovic this evening in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open, Milos Raonic drew heavily on the match management strategy honed to perfection by his stylistic role model, Pete Sampras. He served big—24 aces. At critical late stages in the two sets he won, Raonic snapped up a decisive service break. And when the chance came to finish, Raonic did so grandly, serving out the final game of the match at love, the last point a thundering ace down the T.

But the path to victory was hardly linear, as Raonic had to repeatedly rally from behind to earn a 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5 victory. He’d been down match point in the third, serving at 4-5, 30-40—and fought it off with a series of forceful forehands. From there, it was straight out of Sampras, Raonic applying all sorts of pressure with ample attacking tennis to earn his second service break of the match.

It had taken a long time for Raonic to get there, though. He'd held at love to open the match and in the next game held three break points on the 32nd-ranked Krajinovic. From here on, it was all Krajinovic. The Serb countered, broke Raonic with a series of crisp returns and groundstrokes, consolidated his lead to go up 3-1 and then managed it with all the care and control of a mother hen guarding a set of eggs. Serving at 5-4, Krajinovic showed zero nerves and held at love.

The second set began similarly to the first. Krajinovic took Raonic’s first service game, held comfortably, and at one point won 13 straight points. In the often-tricky 4-3 game, he fought off a break point with a sparkling backhand down-the-line pass.


For Pete's sake, Raonic rallies from the brink

For Pete's sake, Raonic rallies from the brink

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At times, Raonic resembles the longstanding title contender who has danced near the top of the sport—a Wimbledon final in ’16, a career high ranking of No. 3—but hardly sustained it. At other times, those appear but distant memories. Physical woes have often hindered the 29-year-old Canadian. Raonic’s ATP biography cites three surgeries, as well as injuries in seven other areas. That unenviable top ten list is a major reason for Raonic’s current rank of No. 30.

As Krajinovic walked out to serve, leading 6-4, 5-4, Raonic was a meager zero for seven on break points. Then, just as can happen to recreational players, Krajinovic unraveled. His serve went slower and shorter. A couple of backhands leaked wide, a forehand went into the net and soon it was 5-all.

The pendulum swung even further in the tiebreaker. Krajinovic, serving at 1-0, lost focus on the next points, spraying a forehand, missing a volley. Always a keen student, Raonic summoned Sampras: two straight aces and what proved an impregnable 4-1 lead. Perhaps it was a case where experience had made the difference. This was tiebreaker 358 of Raonic’s career, compared to only 52 for Krajinovic.

Experience—or maybe, simply, a big serve—came into play in the third set when Raonic, serving at 2-3, fought off three break points over the course of a game that lasted more than 12 minutes.

Raonic’s hero was a man of Greek origins who was born on August 12. In tomorrow’s semi, he’ll face someone who also has those two attributes—Stefanos Tsitsipas. They’ve only played once before, earlier this year in the third round of the Australian Open. A resurgent Raonic won that one in gunslinger fashion, 7-5, 6-4, 7-6 (2). As both Krajinovic and Tsitsipas will testify, beware of Raonic in tiebreakers.

For Pete's sake, Raonic rallies from the brink

For Pete's sake, Raonic rallies from the brink