Australian Open 2019: Milos Raonic’s serve is getting back to its bruising best, and rest of men’s draw ought to be scared

How much do you trust your biggest strength?

That’s a question you’ll probably encounter at some point in your life during a job interview. But it’s also a question that would be perfectly suited to a tennis player’s press conference.

Australian Open 2019: Milos Raonic’s serve is getting back to its bruising best, and rest of men’s draw ought to be scared

Milos Raonic’s biggest strength is, by any measure, his serve. AFP

Milos Raonic’s biggest strength is, by any measure, his serve. When it’s in full flow, he’s nearly unbeatable – there’s not much anyone can do when both first and second serves are whizzing past them at warp speed. But when it is off, he becomes a sitting duck to even slightly well-timed returns.

In his second round match against Stan Wawrinka on Thursday, Raonic’s serve wasn’t at its absolute best. He got less than 70 percent first serves in, and won less than 85 percent of first serve points. But when it mattered the most – in the all-important third set tiebreaker – he made it work for him like a charm.

Wawrinka didn’t play badly in the match, and certainly not in that tiebreaker. In fact, from start to finish this was the best that Wawrinka had played for a sustained length of time (the match lasted longer than four hours) since his return to the tour early last year. He was generating seriously good angles with his forehand, was out-acing Raonic in the first couple of sets, and was hitting his iconic backhand with a crispness that was as soothing to the eyes as the picturesque Yarra river flowing through the heart of Melbourne.

But if this was the best that he had played since returning from injury, the man on the other side of the net could claim the exact same thing.

Few players on the tour have been as unfortunate with injuries as Raonic. Ever since the end of 2016 – his breakout year in many ways – he has been almost constantly in and out of the treatment table, struggling with whole gamut of issues. Knee, elbow, calf, wrist, hamstring – you name a body part, and Raonic has probably had a problem with it.

Cutting short his 2017 had seemed like a good idea at the time, especially since so many other players in the last couple of years have taken breaks and emerged the better for it. But the Canadian’s return after the mini-hiatus didn’t go as planned, mainly because the one thing he would have hoped to put behind him by taking a break – injuries – refused to leave his side.

After a couple of good results in the 2018 North American spring events – he reached the semis and quarters at Indian Wells and Miami respectively, losing to Juan Martin del Potro both times – he went back to making frequent trips to the hospital. He continued playing through the niggles, even reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals, but didn’t quite look like his old self. Ultimately he had to pull the plug early again, withdrawing from his second round match against Roger Federer at the Paris Masters.

When 2019 began, not much was expected from Raonic. His draw in Melbourne certainly did him no favors; he was pitted against the erratic but explosive Nick Kyrgios in the first round, and the winner of the Wawrinka vs Gulbis match in the second. I doubt anyone was even looking past these two rounds; the prevailing belief was that whichever player emerged out of this jam-packed section would be lucky to remain standing after the Herculean ordeal.

And yet here we are, with Raonic into the third round on the back of two authoritative performances. Against Kyrgios he was nearly flawless, out-serving and out-hitting the talented Australian who was actually playing seriously for a change. And against Wawrinka he was all of that…and more.

The forehand was on fire pretty much the entire four hours. Raonic pushed Wawrinka so far wide of the tramlines with his inside-out forehand, and so frequently, that the Swiss barely had any time to set up for his famous one-hander. He was also solid with his backhand, and relentlessly committed to moving forward – Raonic played a whopping 96 points at the net, winning an impressive 69 of them.

It’s not easy to push a player like Wawrinka on the defensive, but that’s exactly what Raonic did for a vast majority of the match. He was the one controlling the rallies and making the bold change-ups, not Wawrinka; he seemed convinced, with good reason, that living on the edge was the only way to win the match.

It’s a mark of how well Wawrinka played that all of Raonic’s daredevilry could have still gone in vain if not for that game-changing third set. Wawrinka refused to blink, and did everything humanly possible to stay in contention. But that’s what makes the Raonic serve so special – sometimes, it is not humanly possible to deal with it.

Every time Raonic faced the heat on his serve, he came up with a thunderous first strike. 5-6, 7-8, 9-10 – all of the set points he faced were swatted away with the calmness that he has become famous for. Armed with such a massive weapon, all Raonic had to do was wait patiently for Wawrinka to miss a crucial first serve. That’s what eventually happened; at 11-11 the Swiss made a forehand error after a decent Raonic return, and the match was in the Canadian’s control.

But of course since this is Raonic, it wasn’t going to be completely straightforward. He started showing signs of physical discomfort in the fourth set, and looked unlikely to last the full five sets. So he went all out with his attack, unloading on his forehand to break Wawrinka back at 3-5, and then somehow held firm to snatch the match in another tiebreaker.

In the on-court interview after the match, Raonic was asked about the nature of his ailment, and he brushed it off saying he was unlikely to feel anything once he got into the ice bath. Even during the press conference later he made no mention of any injury, which suggests that whatever he was experiencing in the fourth set was not serious.

That’s not good news for the rest of the men’s draw, because Raonic may well be back to his bruising, battle-hardened best. He’s always done well at the Australian Open, having reached three consecutive quarterfinals here from 2015 to 2017, so you can bet that no player would relish the prospect of seeing him on the other side of the net, smacking forehand winners all over the place.

And there’s always that serve, and his unshakeable trust in it. Is there really any way to counter that deadly combination?

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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2019 21:32:53 IST

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