Raonic has done some outstanding work this season after an injury plagued 2015 campaign. He opened the year by upending Roger Federer in the final of Brisbane, and then reached his second career major tournament semifinal at the Australian Open. He was the runner-up to Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells. The way he has been playing for most of the 2016 season, Raonic looms as a serious contender to win Wimbledon in July. He came to the Aegon Championships at the fabled Queen’s Club in London this past week looking to claim the grass court crown there. In my view, it was a tournament he should have secured on a surface that suits him to the hilt.
The 25-year-old surged into the final without losing his serve in four matches. He ended a three match losing streak against Nick Kyrgios and won that morale boosting contest in three sets. He handled another Australian, Bernard Tomic, in a routine, straight set semifinal. And then Raonic took on Andy Murray in the final. He was primed to topple Murray, take the title, and approach Wimbledon with supreme conviction and perhaps a sense of Centre Court destiny.
But Raonic wasted a big opportunity to prevail over the world No. 2 on the lawns of London only eight days before Wimbledon commences. He was up by a set and a break. He was just about on the verge of realizing a lofty goal, right where he wanted to be, with the match essentially in his grasp. Indisputably, a ferocious fighter like Murray will never surrender, even under such daunting circumstances. He does not stand at No. 2 in the world without being worthy of that status. His propensity to stage spectacular comebacks has been demonstrated regularly over the years.
Yet the fact remains that Raonic was in a commanding position, and should have made a lot more than he did of his opening. Here is what I am referencing. Both men were prepared fully for this battle, and the level of play on both sides of the net across the first set was superb. Neither player was giving anything away on serve. Raonic connected with 72% of his first serves and won a staggering 88% of those points. Murray countered with 74% of his first serves going in, winning 86% of those points. On second serve points, Raonic won 6 of 10 for 60% while Murray was five of ten for 50%.
Given those high quality numbers from both competitors, it was not surprising in the least that neither one of them garnered even one break point opportunity in that gripping opening set. Inevitably and fittingly for the players,invitingly for the appreciative fans, the outcome would be settled in a tie-break. Both players recognized that the victor in the tie-break would have a substantial advantage as the match progressed. But it was Raonic who set the tempo at the outset.
He was smothering Murray with pace and sustained aggression. He gained the immediate mini-break for 1-0 with a magnificent backhand down the line approach that led to a beautifully played forehand volley down the line. Raonic easily read Murray’s passing shot attempt and deposited a drop volley winner into a wide open space. Raonic served-and-volleyed his way to 2-0, and then moved to 3-0 with another telling volley leaving Murray helpless in the backcourt.
Murray answered by winning both of his service points, but Raonic was unswerving in his intensity, purposefulness and execution. A clutch forehand winner lifted the Canadian to 4-2, and he made it 5-2 with a sizzling second serve that Murray could not get back in play. Once more, Murray went to work with an ace and a forehand volley winner. It was 5-4 now for Raonic, with two service points to come for the Canadian.
But Murray struck back to 5-5 with utter control of the next rally, leading to a netted backhand from an off balanced Raonic. Raonic responded with unmistakable poise under pressure, taking a lob return of serve from Murray and pounding an overhead away resoundingly for a winner. Now Murray served at 5-6. He was back on serve yet still set point down. The British competitor attacked, but Raonic kept his backhand passing shot low. Murray’s volley was respectable, but his adversary clearly lined up his passing shot, connecting cleanly for a winner. Tie-break to Raonic, 7-5. He was up a set. His outlook had to be bright.
Raonic was roaring at the start of the second set, holding at love, breaking Murray at 15 for 2-0, holding at love 3-0. He had swept 12 of 13 points to open up that lead. Murry was largely left out of the conversation. He was at Raonic’s mercy entirely in that stretch. Murray held for 1-3. The game that followed was the single most important one of the match. Raonic served at 3-1, reaching 40-30. He appeared to have held when he punched a compact backhand volley crosscourt for an apparent winner.
Murray challenged the call, and the replay confirmed that the Raonic volley had landed wide by a whisker. Raonic then handed Murray the next point, netting an easy forehand off a blocked return. Now Raonic faced his first break point of the afternoon, and only his eighth of the tournament. The 6’5″ Canadian sent a first serve wide to Murray’s backhand, and the British player lunged to his left and made a scintillating winning crosscourt return that left the British fans in a frenzy.
Raonic should have been ahead 4-1, in which case he would have needed only two more holds to capture the tournament. Instead, Murray was back in the match, serving at 2-3, feeling at last that he had his bearings. He held at 30 for 3-3. Raonic was surely flustered, even if he was not revealing any insecurity with his demeanor. And yet, his game was collapsing. In the seventh game, he double faulted to fall behind 15-30, and then lost a serve-and-volley point for 15-40 as his first volley was below par. Murray had time to make a decent passing shot, and Raonic’s feet were frozen as he netted a drop volley.
The Canadian saved one break point to reach 30-40, but then missed his first serve. Murray jumped on the second delivery, took control, and eventually forced Raonic to net a forehand under duress. Improbably, almost inexplicably, Murray had rallied from a break down to move ahead by a break. He promptly held at 15 for 5-3. Serving for the set in the tenth game, he held with ease again. It was one set all. Both men understood that the contest had been altered radically in the space of a few crucial minutes.
Raonic started the third set in the worst possibly way. He double faulted for 30-30 in the first game, followed by a forehand inside out unforced error. Down 30-40, he was put on the defensive by a cagey Murray, who wisely moved forward after a penetrating backhand down the line to release a drop shot winner. Murray had the break, and he refused to look back. The top seed held for 2-0 with an ace down the T at 40-30. Now both men began holding convincingly. Raonic allowed Murray only one point on his way to 1-2 before Murray advanced to 3-1, also at the cost of only one point. Raonic answered with a love hold but Murray was serving with growing accuracy and deception. He went ahead 4-2, dropping only one point on his delivery.
Raonic held one last time in the seventh game before Murray—buoyed by another timely ace on the penultimate point of the game—held at 15 for 5-3. Serving to stay in the match and remain in the tournament, Raonic wiped away two match points against him, rallying from 15-40 to deuce with a pair of winning overheads. An ace gave him a game point, but Murray was unshakable, releasing a backhand passing shot winner down the line for deuce. He quickly collected the next two points, coming from behind gallantly to win 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3. For Murray, the last two sets were highly impressive; he not only returned much better than his opponent, but his serve was decidedly more effective as well. While Raonic won only 33% of his second serve points in both the second and third sets, Murray was at 43% in that category for the second set and 40% for the third. On first serve points, Murray won 78% in the second set, which was 7% better than Raonic. In the final set, Murray took 88% of his first serve points while Raonic was down at 71%.
Clearly, Murray displayed an increasingly stellar brand of tennis over the last two sets across the board. He elevated his game decidedly, found his range off the ground, and counter-attacked stupendously at times. He was worthy of his win, and seldom has he maintained such a positive attitude in coming from behind. His reunion with coach Ivan Lendl was a big success. Murray set a tournament record with his fifth triumph at Queen’s Club. But for Raonic, this was a serious setback in every way.
He had hoped to make his initial event with John McEnroe on his coaching team a triumph, and it could well have been. But how can a player who has not lost his serve all week— and right into the middle of the second set of the final—proceed to get broken four times in the last two sets of the title round appointment? To be sure, Murray must be given plaudits for reading the Raonic serve so astutely. But the fact remains that Raonic has no business losing his serve four times to anyone on grass in such a short span, not excluding the often stupendous Murray.
The hard truth is that Raonic lost this match as much as Murray won it. He fell into disarray down the stretch. Considering how imposing he is on a grass court, he should have been able to resume his mastery on serve and not allow Murray to turn things around so thoroughly. Raonic is hard working, earnest and comprehensive in his approach to his profession, and a fellow who has been uncompromising in trying to keep making progress.
He may yet do himself justice, even at the upcoming Wimbledon. But he can’t allow skirmishes like his latest duel with Murray to elude his grasp and get away from him. It was up to Raonic to close out the account on his own terms, and he failed to get the job done. The hope here is that he will be his own toughest critic, and not allow future opportunities like this one to pass him by. In my view, he must redefine himself to explore his full potential. Technically, tactically and physically, he has made immense strides, but mentally there is much work left for him to do. Milos Raonic needs to demand even more from himself as he moves into a critical phase of his career. I bet he would be the first to agree with me on that central point.