Wednesday night, Milos Raonic had looked sluggish, his fingers barely on the ledge as he served at 4-6, 3-5 versus Filip Krajinovic in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open. In the third set, Raonic had faced a match point. Yet another last eight appearance would scarcely be motivational. But he’d won that match and today faced fourth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Less than 48 hours after the escape versus Krajinovic, Raonic has reached the finals of his first ATP Masters 1000 event in more than four years. In the course of beating Tsitsipas 7-6 (5), 6-3, Raonic played tennis that was both contained and inspired. Best of all, Raonic looked healthy and fit, revealing what’s arguably the best movement of his career.
Early on, Tsitsipas’ ebullience looked like it was going to carry him to victory. The energy the 21-year-old Greek brings to the tennis is not just compelling, it’s charismatic. There will come more times when his joy for the battle will bring thousands to their feet (or, in our current world, millions to their tweet).
For much of the first set, Tsitsipas’ ability to block back Raonic’s serves and swiftly take command of rallies gave him an apparent edge. In the first set, Tsitsipas reached set point with Raonic serving at 4-5, 30-40. Here again, he grabbed hold of the rally, driving a backhand down-the-line deep and hard to the Raonic forehand. Raonic’s reply went down-the-line, fairly shallow, giving Tsitsipas enough time and space to unleash his beloved crosscourt roller. But he shanked it. Raonic held, and soon it was 6-all.
If in the classroom of tennis, Tsitsipas these days is a bright, young hopeful, then Raonic, eight years older, is that longstanding, somewhat somber grad student still polishing his dissertation. In the tiebreaker, it was Raonic who brought the knowledge, at 5-all busting it open with a pair of sharp forehand winners.
Tsitsipas’ youth also surfaced in the second set. Serving at 1-2, 15-30, he foot-faulted on a second serve, sprayed a forehand wide at 30-30 and then, at 30-40, mismanaged the real estate of the court, leaving himself open to a Raonic down-the-line backhand pass that elicited a volley error. Armed with a 3-1 lead, his biggest in several days, Raonic became increasingly relaxed and held easily over the next three games, closing it out at love.
Disappointed as Tsitsipas was, surely he’d draw confidence from a week that had seen him take down three of the game’s biggest servers—Kevin Anderson, John Isner, Reilly Opelka (the latter retiring near the end of the first set). But Raonic today had far too much. The big serve and power forehand, expected. The rest, a refreshing surprise.