“That was like son versus stepson,” declared Michael Downey, the current chief executive of Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) and former Tennis Canada president, about his divided loyalties watching as Milos Raonic was beaten 6-3, 7-5 by Andy Murray in round-robin action at the World Tour Finals on Tuesday.
Downey was with Tennis Canada for 10 years and helped nurture the career of Raonic, but now he’s across the pond and obviously Murray is the major locomotive of British tennis. The match tore Downey apart in many ways but it’s more likely Murray (the stepspon) was his preferred winner because the LTA and the All England Club are partners with the ATP World Tour in the season-ending grand finale. Going forward, Murray will clearly be a better ratings-booster for Downey and the Brits than Raonic (the son).
On the court, it was a decidedly frustrating evening for Raonic, as it always will be when he serves as poorly as he did. His first serve percentage in the first set was a woeful 37%. While it was 63% in the second set and wound up as 53% for the match, that was misleading, as he himself explained. “To be frank first serve percentage today shouldn’t have been above 40%,” an extremely self-critical Raonic said. “I started hitting serves (a few earlier had reached 139 mph) 115 mph to get it past 50%.”
Beginning with his second service game, when he had to save two break points to even the score at 2-all, things were not going smoothly. Two games later, when he missed a forehand wide and long, Murray had the break to lead 4-2, and the separation he required to soon finish off the set.
Raonic lost serve – after leading 40-love – in the third game of the second set and that seemed to fire him up. He broke right back to even matters at 2-all. In Murray’s next two service games, Raonic took love-30 leads but failed to achieve a break.
Finally, serving at 5-all, he fell behind 15-40 and was broken when Murray countered a big forehand approach shot with a low, laser backhand pass that was two good and basically died on Raonic’s racquet.
Murray’s serving for the match at 6-5 proved to be a microcosm of Raonic’s ineffectual form. The Canadian hit a beautiful volley winner, a backhand winner and a bullet forehand service return to save the first match point at 40-30. But there were also four poor unforced errors, including a forehand UE long on the second match point.
Asked about the stark contrast – the sparkling winners followed by the clunker unforced errors in that final game – Raonic replied, “I had to go for it, there was no time to lose. I had my back up against the wall. I had to sort of put all my cards down and go and play.”
On his overall performance, he said, “there was too much up and down. It was poor of me to lose that (second set) 1-all on my serve game after being 40-love up. After that point, I started going for it. I created a few love-30 possibilities doing that. I just didn’t make the most of them.”
The Raonic – Murray outcome was the sixth straight-sets victory in the first six matches at the World Tour Finals. The matches have been one-sided affairs with five sets ending 6-1 and only two (Federer’s 7-6 and Murray’s 7-5 – both against Raonic) going beyond 6-4.
Federer offered a plausible explanation for the one-way traffic after the first three days of round-robin action. “I think it’s actually quite simple,” he said. “In my opinion, because the court plays somewhat slow, the serve doesn’t have that much of an impact depending on you how back it up.
“It’s very much a game of movement and the baseline game. Whoever’s better from the baseline has the upper hand…then dominates. We’re seeing heavy scorelines because it’s just hard to serve your way out of trouble.
“You need to hit a lot of great shots – if it (the serve) is not working well for you – to have an impact. You have to work extremely hard. I think if you then look at the way Novak or Stan (with 6-1, 6-1 wins over Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych respectively) has played here, I think they both played very well, which made it very difficult for the other guys.
“Their serves didn’t have the impact that we normally know that Cilic’s or Berdych’s serve can have. From that standpoint, I think the best movers are most likely going to come through here.”
Raonic doesn’t fall into the best mover category and will have to maximize the assets he does possess for his Thursday match-up with Kei Nishikori, who lost 6-3, 6-2 to Federer on Tuesday. Basically Raonic has to beat Nishikori in two sets to have any chance to advance to the weekend’s semi-finals. He may have an advantage because the 24-year-old Japanese injured his right wrist during the Federer match and appeared to have lost some of the usual zip on his serve.
Raonic – Nishikori is an afternoon match (9 a.m. EDT in Canada) with Federer – Murray in the evening.
Talking about Federer, Murray said looking ahead about his own semi-final chances, “for him I think there’s a very good chance that he’s going to go through regardless of the results.
“For me it depends on the winner of the Nishikori – Raonic match. If Kei wins, then I need to beat Roger, it depends on the scoreline of that match with Kei and Raonic.
“If Raonic wins, then I know that all I need to do is win the match against Roger and I’ll be through. I’m not going to know that until I get ready for the match.”
The key to the Raonic game will always be his serve and he hopes, on Wednesday and Thursday to fine tune, to “just go back to basics, focus on my rhythm, focus on maybe the balance of the body, the toss, make sure the basics are in place…just go through repetition doing the right thing.”
Everything starts with his strongest stroke, as he himself explained: “the serve sort of affects everything else – serving and holding more comfortably. I’ve lost my serve six times in three of the four sets I’ve played. It creates a higher pressure on the opponents when I serve well and it also takes some off my back and allows me to swing more freely on return games.”
Murray was well aware of Raonic’s serving deficiencies on Tuesday night in the O2 Arena. “In the first set in particular, he didn’t serve well at all,” Murray said about Raonic. “For him that’s obviously really his biggest weapon. And, in the first set especially, he served poorly. That obviously helped me.
“Often a player, when their biggest weapon isn’t working well for them, it can be destructive to the rest of their game. They maybe start rushing or trying to do too much in the rest of their game.”
The bottom line is that the Raonic serve is the foundation of his game. When it’s not solid, the potency of the rest of his arsenal suffers.
He’s not like a Djokovic, Federer, Nadal or Murray who can fall back on their backcourt game’s to survive when their serves are off. Raonic has exceptional ground strokes…when they’re firing on all cylinders.
But it seems more and more that his awesome serve is sort of bargain with the devil – “you can have this amazing weapon but your ground strokes will not be as consistent as the players who don’t have the good fortune to have something so devastating it’s able to end rallies before they begin.”
Canadian tennis fans, and in particular Milos Raonic fans, may have to accept that their man will never be a dependable, week-in and week-out, baseliner in the Djokovic-Federer-Nadal-Murray mode. That he won’t dominate the sport as they have with such utter reliability over most of the past decade.
But Raonic will certainly have his days, and his tournaments, when his game is “unplayable,” as many outclassed opponents have described it. At such times, he’s able to render them almost defenseless with his variety and power in both the backcourt and forecourt.
But…it will always depend on the serve.
NESTOR/ZIMONJIC: THE END IS NEAR
Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic hopes hang by an extremely thin thread after they were beaten 6-4, 5-7, [10-4] in second round-robin action by Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France on Tuesday.
The top-seeded Group B team saved a break point in the third game of the match but Nestor was broken in the next service game – the last three points were a Nestor double fault, a Zimonjic missed a volley and an un-returnable service return by Roger-Vasselin. That service break was all the Frenchmen needed to win the set.
In the second set, Roger-Vasselin missed a sitter backhand volley at deuce in the second game to give Nestor and Zimonjic the first break to 2-0.
But the Frenchmen broke back in the fifth game and the set got a little whacky from that point onward. Serving at 4-all, Zimonjic saved four breaks points from love 40 to hold to 5-4. In the next game, Benneteau fell behind 15-40 after consecutive feeble double faults into the net but rallied to save three break/set points and level the set at 5-all.
But the Frenchmen, with Roger-Vasselin serving at 5-6, faltered and Nestor-Zimonjic broke on five points helped by some assertive play by the heavy-hitting Serb.
The match was decided by a match tiebreak and it was on serve with Zimonjic serving at 3-4 when Roger-Vasselin hit a terrific return and Zimonjic couldn’t control a low volley.
Zimonjic won the next point with a 126 mph serve but that was the last point he and Nestor would win – the final point being a rather sad-looking Nestor forehand service return into the net.
Nestor and Zimonjic weren’t badly outplayed but there was no question the better team won.
There’s a possibility that if Nestor and Zimonjic win their next match against Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez, they could finish in a tie at 1-2 for second place in Group B and make the semi-finals based on a tiebreak system, but it’s highly unlikely and Nestor-Zimonjic will likely play their final match in a partnership that has produced two Wimbledon titles (2008 and 2009) and one Roland Garros championship (2010) on Thursday.
“I’d imagine chances aren’t so good now,” a sombre Nestor conceded about the situation.
Regarding the Tuesday match against Benneteau and Roger-Vasselin, he said, “they were better, they returned a lot better than we did and came up with the shots. They put a lot of balls at our feet at key moments. They’re a good team, Grand Slam winners (Roland Garros ’14) winners for a reason.”
About his own tennis, Nestor said, “I was a little bit flat-footed too much on returns and I felt like I was getting handcuffed a lot. I felt the quality of the return was quite clean off their racquet and balls not with the proper pace on my returns.”
Relating himself, 38, and Nestor, 42, to their heyday between 2008 and 2010 when they won the three Grand Slams and two World Tour Finals titles, Zimonjic said, “it’s tough to compare. Now you’re talking three or four years later, you’re talking about us being not as quick, not as powerful and in combination with us coming here really without confidence at all. We didn’t win a match playing together since the US Open – that’s a very long time. Here the conditions are a little bit slow and you have to play a lot of balls. And if your serve is not working, and if you’re making a lot of unforced errors, then you really have no chance. That’s where I think the biggest difference is.”
Are Nestor and Zimonjic starting to show their age? Here’s what Roger-Vasselin had to say: “Maybe they had a little less drive than we did, we showed a lot more fire and maybe that made the difference. But with their experience, you feel that they win points just with their experience by being perfectly-position for shots. So, maybe Julien (32) and I (30) also have a future in doubles.”
A DELICATE BALANCE
This was an impressive feat witnessed this week in the Chelsea area of London: a window cleaner doing the fourth floor from street level!
The sculpture here is located in Cadogan Place. It was made all the more striking by the afternoon sunlight one day last week.