Somewhere in the middle of the third set between Milos Raonic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, the camera panned to the speed gun after a particularly thunderous Raonic second serve. It read 197 kph.
A few points later, Tsitsipas was again left flailing helplessly as he struggled to get his racquet on a second serve. The screen showed a staggering 216 kph.
Shortly after that, another second serve went flying past Tsitsipas. The speed this time? 221 kph.
221 kph is better than what most people manage on the first serve, but on this day there was no holding back from Raonic. He put it all out there, going after his shots like a man possessed, and the result was a straight-sets win over one of the brightest lights among the NextGen.
Funnily enough, we were saying nearly the same thing a year ago. Alexander Zverev had entered the 2019 Australian Open as the reigning ATP Finals champion, but he ran into Raonic in the fourth round and was handed a straight-sets defeat. Tsitsipas of course is the current ATP Finals champion, and the parallels with Zverev’s loss are so strong that many have been moved to call the ATP Finals cursed — with Raonic being the evil shaman.
There is, however, one big difference. Zverev put in one of his worst ever performances against Raonic last year, and the Canadian didn’t have to do anything extraordinary to get the win. Tsitsipas, on the other hand, didn’t do much wrong, and he still failed to get even a set.
That’s what happens when a player takes the racquet right out of your hands, on the first serve and the second serve.
Raonic has always been a great server, but what he did on Friday was special even by his standards. He won 89 percent of his first serve points and close to 60 percent on his second serve, with 19 aces and just one double fault. The 29-year-old didn’t face a single break point on a court that is playing slower than normal, and kept ramping up the pace on his second serve as the match progressed.
Until the middle of the match Raonic was averaging around 175 on the second serve, but after he got the cushion of a two-set lead that average went up to 193. Whatever little hope Tsitsipas had of mounting a comeback, went up in smoke as Raonic’s serving confidence grew.
After the match Tsitsipas described his predicament as “getting punched in the face with one shot.” The Greek seemed just as dazed by his inability to make an impression on Raonic as he did after getting schooled by Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals last year.
“I felt a bit stupid returning his serves. I felt like I was slow. My anticipation was not there,” he said ruefully in his post-match press conference.
Raonic, on his part, always knew that his serve was monstrously difficult to deal with, but his problem going into Friday’s match was more wide-ranging. Over the last couple of years, the Canadian has been dealing with a whole host of injuries, and those had seemingly robbed him of the sharpness needed to challenge the top guys. His serve was still a weapon; it just wasn’t the consistent weapon it used to be.
But back at the site where he had once reached the semi-final (in 2016), it all came gloriously together again.
“It’s been a while,” Raonic said when talking about the last time he played such a high-quality match. “I think I have a sense that that tennis could come together if I could put the work behind it, and I think all those pieces today came together.”
The ‘pieces’ he was talking about, of course, weren’t just to do with his serve. Raonic was also unusually effective with his forehand, particularly the inside-out one, and his backhand slice often got Tsitsipas horribly out of position. Since his serve was working so well, Raonic was free to express himself fully with his groundstrokes and variety while returning — and that was enough to throw the Greek off his game.
To Tsitsipas’ credit he did try to hang in the rallies as long as he possibly could, even when Raonic was throwing his whole 6’5” body into his forehands from the ad court. But Tstisipas’ backhand is not yet equipped to deal with a constant barrage of that quality. While he could reflex a few topspin drives back into play, he couldn’t change the pace or direction of the exchanges often enough to get into the ascendancy.
The lack of penetration on the Greek’s down-the-line backhand was probably what hurt him the most. Even when Raonic left the whole court open to run around his own backhand, Tsitsipas failed to use the space that was being offered to him on a platter — because his down-the-line drive was either too slow, or too loopy.
“It’s quite difficult to play him,” Tsitsipas said. “He’s playing forehands from all over the court, and you don’t really know where you should stand exactly, because he’s just so fast and just turning around, hitting those forehands.”
The one cloud of comfort for Tsitsipas would be that never gave up even when the task looked impossible. He’s still just 21, and while this loss is certainly a setback, it’s not quite the disaster that it seems on the surface. Raonic is just a very difficult player to handle when he’s having a good day, and Tsitsipas learned that the hard way.
“There is not many guys necessarily that play the way I do, and I can find an efficiency in it,” Raonic said later. “I could imagine that, you know, not having any opportunities on the return games, it can be frustrating. I just tried to keep him off-balance, and I know that's sort of my recipe for success if I can keep the guy feeling uncomfortable."
In hindsight, the Greek could have probably used more variety to disrupt Raonic’s rhythm, and maybe approached the net more often to prevent the Canadian from getting there first. But it’s no guarantee that any of that would’ve worked with Raonic serving like he did, and Tsitsipas was frank enough to admit that there’s no shame in getting hit off the court.
“That’s life. I have learned to deal with it,” he said. “I’ll just keep going. We’ll win it next year. That’s fine,” he added with a smile.
Raonic now moves on to the fourth round, where he will face another resurgent veteran in Marin Cilic. Cilic himself is known to bring the heat on his serve, but even he will be hard-pressed to top what Raonic did on Friday.
A 221 kph second serve is a 221 kph second serve, and anyone facing that kind of fire can only close their eyes and pray for divine intervention. Unfortunately for Tsitsipas, the Gods were not on his side today.
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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2020 21:09:40 IST