Walking out onto Rod Laver Arena not long after Roger Federer had astonishingly saved seven match points on his way to a five set triumph over Tennys Sandgren, Novak Djokovic was primed for his quarterfinal appointment against a resurgent Milos Raonic. He had never lost in nine previous duels with the big serving Canadian. He had conceded only two sets in all of those meetings. And Djokovic had played first rate tennis across his four previous matches at this Australian Open.
It must be mentioned, however, that Raonic was playing some of his finest tennis in a very long while. He, too, had swept into the quarterfinals without the loss of a set. Moreover, Raonic had not been broken by anyone in the tournament, holding serve 59 consecutive times. The 29-year-old is a top of the line professional who upended No. 6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round. He was seeded No. 32 this year after playing only 36 matches in 2019, but Djokovic knew full well that his opponent concluded 2016 at a career high of No. 3 in the world.
And yet, the fundamentals of the Djokovic-Raonic rivalry have remained unchanged. The Serbian’s magnificent return of serve neutralizes Raonic’s chief weapon. Djokovic is too solid and resourceful from the baseline, much quicker covering the court, and the better man on the biggest points. All of those attributes were showcased as he dissected Raonic, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (1), with another exemplary performance. For the eighth time in his career, Djokovic is through to the semifinals of the major that has defined his greatness more than any other, and has never lost after reaching that round in Melbourne.
The Serb made his intentions entirely clear from the outset of this clash. He was wide-eyed, eager to make an early impression; and determined to let Raonic know that any time he got his racket on a return, the ball was coming back. All through the opening set, Raonic was dancing in and out of danger in the cool night air. He was fighting in vain to cope with the wind, uncertain about how to proceed from the backcourt, and looking for ways to impose himself. He was essentially under siege from the opening bell, and working inordinately hard to hold serve.
The Canadian’s first difficulty on his delivery was at 1-1. In a four deuce game, he erased three break points against him, coming through every time in the clutch with an unstoppable first serve, an excellent second serve with too much mustard on it, and another aggressive point that concluded when Djokovic lobbed long. Raonic held on for 2-2 with a thunderbolt out wide to the Djokovic backhand in the ad court. On his way to 3-3, Raonic saved another break point. Djokovic let him off the hook by misgauging the wind and awkwardly netting a sliced backhand.
Now Djokovic experienced his only tense moment on his serve, saving a break point in the seventh game with an impeccably located first serve wide to Raonic’s backhand that was unanswerable. When Raonic served at 3-4, he saved another break point with an ad-court ace out wide. He took that three-deuce game commendably to reach 4-4. Time and again, he was thwarting Djokovic on the break points with his best stuff.
But Djokovic connected with all five first serves in the ninth game, holding at 15 for 5-4 with superb execution off the ground and precise serving. Serving to stay in the set, Raonic maintained his posture of coming up with big serves when it counted. In a five deuce game, he wiped away three set points. But living so dangerously caught up with the Canadian at last. Reaching break point for the ninth time in the set, Djokovic converted on his fourth set point by outplaying Raonic from the baseline, coaxing a forehand error to win the point. Djokovic sealed the set 6-4, displaying poise under pressure, refusing to be intimidated by the potency and accuracy of Raonic’s serve.
The second seed had not only succeeded in taking the set, but he had also forced his adversary to endure too much physical stress. In that opening set, Raonic played no fewer than 55 points in his five service games, and that was 30 more than the efficient Djokovic. Clearly, the effort took its toll on Raonic. The Serbian achieved a crucial break for 3-1 in the second set, employing a low backhand passing shot to set up a forehand pass into the clear. Djokovic held at love for 4-1. He advanced to 5-2 despite squandering a 40-0 lead, holding on his sixth game point. Two games later, serving for the set, he was letter-perfect. He did not lose a point, taking the set 6-3, moving out in front two sets to love.
But it was evident by then that Djokovic was preoccupied with some kind of a hidden burden as he tried to close out the account in the third set. He looked unhappy, somewhat distracted and plainly concerned. Raonic, meanwhile, was more in sync on serve. He was holding easily while Djokovic was getting pushed harder to hold. The 32-year-old saved a break point on his way to 1-1, and took a tough deuce game to reach 2-2 . He stayed on serve to reach 4-4 but then needed a medical timeout to deal with dry eyes and contact lens issues.
Even after the timeout, Djokovic was frequently blinking his eyes and obviously not seeing the ball with anything even resembling his usual clarity of vision. He was observed by the trainer and tournament doctor at the ensuing changeovers. But his undervalued discipline and admirable professionalism kept him going. Twice two points from dropping the set at 4-5, he served an ace and released a service winner. After an unflagging Raonic saved four break points in a six deuce game to move ahead 6-5, Djokovic bore down hard, holding at love for 6-6.
He had won six of his seven career tie-breaks against Raonic. Playing masterful percentage tennis, he closed out the account—that had grown complicated toward the end because of the difficulties with his eyes—with a flourish, winning the tie-break 7-1.
In the on-court interview with John McEnroe, Djokovic was sympathetic to both Raonic and the crowd for needing to leave the court near the end for the medical timeout. He said, “I want to apologize to Milos once again because it was definitely not something that you see often that a player goes off the court when it is not a changeover moment. I apologize to the crowd also. It was not intentional or tactical. It was just something I had to do. Those few games I really couldn’t see much and I had to change my [contact] lenses.”
Asked how he felt about his performance, Djokovic said, “I felt great on the court. I thought I was very focused. The first couple of sets went exactly the way I wanted them to go. One break was enough each set. I was quite comfortable serving. That was obviously very encouraging. Playing against Milos, I knew that probably two key elements in the game would be the return and how many balls I can get back in play and try to get back into the rally and get him moving on the court.
"And the second one would be how efficiently would I hit my spots with the serve. I think I did pretty well for two sets and I was fortunate to get out of the trouble in the third and I played a perfect tie-break so it was a great performance.”
After reflecting on the Raonic match, Djokovic was asked by McEnroe the inevitable question about playing Federer in the semifinals—the 20-time Grand Slam champion fought off seven match points in the fourth set to top 100th-ranked Tennys Sandgren, 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-3. It will be their 50th showdown across their careers, with Djokovic holding a 26-23 lead in the series.
“Obviously I have tremendous respect for Roger and everything he has achieved in this sport. He has been one of the all-time greats and definitely one of my two biggest rivals. I have been saying this many times but I will repeat it again: the matchups against Roger and Rafa have made me the player I am today and I am happy I have had so many great matches against those guys... Let the better player win.”
Djokovic, of course, will be the clear favorite. He not only is ahead 26-23 in the career series with Federer, but he has won their last five skirmishes at the majors since falling against the Swiss in the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2012. Overall, Djokovic has taken nine of his last twelve battles with the Swiss, although Federer did prevail in their most recent clash a few months ago at the ATP Finals in London. This time around, Djokovic will undoubtedly be a lot fresher than Federer, but he will need to prepare himself mentally and emotionally for the unique experience of performing in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Federer audience. The Swiss, meanwhile, will need an immense supply of energy and inspiration to stay with the Serb.
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