You will never believe this, but Milos Raonic simply doesn’t play aesthetically dazzling matches. That doesn’t make him, however, a bad tennis player. #WellActually, he is extremely good at this sport.
He has made a Wimbledon final. He has reached other major semifinals. If he hadn’t been ridiculously unlucky with injuries, he might have won a major title by now. Raonic has John Isner’s serve with better speed, better touch and feel, and a slightly better ability to hit more forehands and fewer backhands, which plays into his power-focused game. He is not a complete player, but his strengths go beyond his serve, and in modern men’s tennis, that can put a player on the doorstep of greatness if the serve is special.
Whether one’s eyes are attracted to Raonic’s brand of tennis should have no bearing on how we assess the caliber of Raonic’s professionalism or the potency of his game. You might not be stirred by Raonic, but he can certainly cause a stir in brackets.
Ask three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka.
The Swiss lost to Raonic at the U.S. Open, and now Stan The Man — reminding us all how much draws really do matter in this sport — has fallen to the Canadian once again, this time at the Australian Open. This was not a bad match from Wawrinka; this loss was mostly the product of having the rotten luck of getting Raonic in round two. This match — in terms of the quality of the two players — should never be less than a fourth-rounder, ideally a quarterfinal. Alas, injuries led both men into the familiar and yet difficult position of trying to find their way back to the top tier of the ATP.
Such was the context for this latest reunion, won by Raonic in four hours and one minute on Thursday in Melbourne.
You saw, in this match, the qualities which have carried each man a long way in tennis. You saw Wawrinka crushing his signature backhands and steering rallies, at times, into his wheelhouse from the back of the court. You saw Raonic answer the call time and again with his serve, especially in the 13-11 tiebreaker he won in the third set. You saw Wawrinka battle back in the fourth set and point to his head, showing the resilience which has accompanied his rise to surefire Tennis Hall of Fame status. These men showed that if they can JUST…… STAY…….. HEALTHY….. for more than 3.5 seconds, they can come back to the top.
Whereas Andy Murray seems to have very little chance (not zero — maybe a surgical procedure could change things for him; we’ll see) of becoming every bit the player he once was, this Raonic-Wawrinka match showed that both men are capable of becoming their former selves. The injury gods just need to be on the job this time instead of snoozing.
The important follow-up to that last point: Precisely because of injuries and interruptions, it has to be noted that while Stan and Milos had to leave this match with cautious optimism about the future, they can’t quite feel certain about their prospects, either.
Let’s start with Stan: When players have their careers sidelined by injury and they try to work their way back, their fighting qualities remain, but their mastery of situations often takes time to reemerge. Stan pointed at his head and was fully emotionally invested in this match, just as he has been in his very best moments, but the fine line between winning and losing close matches includes the process of repetition.
Wawrinka would win the tough matches he faced late in the second week of his three championship majors — or at 2017 Roland Garros, when he beat Murray in a semifinal which lasted over four and a half hours — because he had played his way into that mindset in the first week of the tournament. Recall his escape from Dan Evans (a man who made headlines this week in Australia) in the third round of the 2016 U.S. Open.
Wawrinka’s career is proof of the need to lubricate the muscles of both the body and the mind, sharpening them in a process of steady development. Give him a difficult five-set test in the first week of a major, and he can work wonders with it. When he wins that kind of test, it means so much more to him than it does to other players (say, for instance, Roberto Bautista Agut). Wawrinka needs that five-setter to develop his muscle memory. Other players get worn down by that process.
Against Raonic, it was clear that Wawrinka’s muscle memory hadn’t yet fully returned — it was there, but not at the level or capacity it needed to be. Give him time and health, though: It might very well return later in 2019, perhaps at Roland Garros.
Now to Milos: As strong as the serve was, and as well as Raonic did in fact compete to earn this deserved win, he was beginning to show signs of strain late in the fourth set, whereas Wawrinka looked like he could play for another few hours. Few would disagree with the idea that in a fifth set, the match would have been Stan’s to lose. Raonic therefore knows that he also has to play his way into a state where he can absorb the strain of a major — but whereas it is more a mental matter for Stan, it is a more physical challenge for Milos.
Where Raonic shares the same piece of turf with John Isner: He is prone to getting sucked into long matches which wear down his body and require more physical punishment. That has left him vulnerable to injuries (more than Isner, obviously) and has played a role in depriving him of significant opportunities. Consider the 2016 Australian Open semifinals against Murray. Raonic could have won that match in straights, but he failed to. In the fourth set and up two sets to one, Raonic got injured. If he had won the match in three, he might never have encountered that injury and faced Djokovic in the final. As it was, he lost to Murray in five. That’s where Raonic — who likely would have lost this match against Stan had it lasted five sets — has to find ways to shorten matches. He escaped here, but he knows he is hardly home free and must always try to limit stress on his body.
Did you have to be aesthetically dazzled by Raonic and Wawrinka to appreciate what the two men forged? Some tennis fans view aesthetic quality as a necessary part of a tennis experience — it’s a free country.
I can only emphasize that Wawrinka and especially Raonic did the best they could under imperfect circumstances. Hopefully, their health will not betray them this year. If that’s the case, they might meet again at the U.S. Open… in the quarters and not the round of 64 or 32.