Murray vs. Raonic Semi-final Preview
We’re impatient, tennis fans. When we catch a glimpse of the next so-called can’t miss/sure thing, the next teen phenom with pro-style stuff who’s sure to take the world by storm, we want results. And we want them now.
When Canada’s Milos Raonic, 6-foot-5 frame and loping, what-me-worry confidence, first burst onto the scene in 2011, we were convinced we were witnessing the start of a great Grand Slam career. His first ATP World Tour title came in an arena better known as The Shark Tank, home to the NHL’s San Jose Sharks.
Where better for a Canadian to break though than on a converted hockey rink?
Raonic, who is set to face Andy Murray on Friday night in the 2016 Australian Open semi-finals, would go on to win three straight titles in San Jose, his concussive serve turning heads and leading some, including 2011 runner-up Fernando Verdasco, to mutter, “When he serves all the time at 140 miles per hour, and every time there’s a chance it’s going to hit the line, you cannot even play tennis.”
Soon everyone was talking about the power-balling sensation who had moved from his native Montenegro to Canada when he was just three, nicknames fluttering around him like a good Ontario snowfall: Maple Leaf Missile, Bombardier Milos, The Big Leaf. But despite his steady rise in the Emirates ATP Rankings, his year-end mark inching toward the Top 10 (he reached a career-high No. 4 in May 2015), the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 and Grand Slam titles weren’t piling up as quickly as we once believed they would.
The truth is he was still so young, his return game, his court sense still developing. Now 25, he’s become a much more complete player. Earlier this month, he scored only his second win over Roger Federer in 11 FedEx ATP Head2Heads, taking the Brisbane title. And adding ‘98 Roland Garros champ Carlos Moya to his team (he still works with Riccardo Piatti) seems to have brought a fresh perspective, a new on-court aggression that has Raonic building smarter points, attacking mid-court balls and even putting pressure on his opponents’ serves.
“I feel like I'm finding answers,” said Raonic, who is bidding to become the first Canadian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final. “I'm taking care of my serve. I'm creating opportunities on the return. I'm reacting much better, getting a lot more returns back in, putting more pressure on my opponents, so eventually the opportunities are coming to me. So I think it's just really about keeping that cycle going forward. It's not a question of will I create opportunities. I feel like I'm playing good enough tennis. I feel like I can. The question is will I make use of them?”
Into only the second major semi-final of his eight-year professional career (‘14 Wimbledon), the injury-free Raonic has perhaps never been better equipped to deliver on the big stage. But to reach his first Grand Slam final, he’ll first have to get past World No. 2 Murray. He’s done it before, including a fourth-round win over the Scotsman at Indian Wells in 2014, but never at this level. They’ve met at a major only once before, Murray winning in straight sets on his way to his first Grand Slam title at the US Open in 2012.
Raonic is 1-12 against Top-2 opposition overall, with his only victory coming against Federer in the quarter-finals in Paris in 2014. He has lost all three of his career meetings with Top-2 players at the Grand Slams in straight sets.
Murray, a four-time finalist in Melbourne, is still seeking his first Australian Open trophy. He finished as runner-up to Federer in 2010, and to Novak Djokovic in 2011, 2013 and 2015.
“Raonic is a big server and tries to play short points,” said Murray. “Milos started this year extremely well. He was unfortunate last year with some injuries. Had a few physical issues. I played him in Madrid and he was struggling a little bit there. Then I think he had the surgery on his foot and missed the French and maybe Wimbledon as well. He's obviously fit and healthy now and playing well.”
Murray, of course, is one of the tour’s premier returners. He is more than capable of neutralising a power server like Raonic and bringing points back to neutral ground. So the Canadian will have to prove himself on the ground against the always-fit 28-year-old Brit, showing us that he is, in fact, the player we always thought he could be.