It was an hour or so after Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer had squeaked out a close three-set victory over Canada’s rising star, Milos Raonic, when he was asked what Raonic’s upside might be.
“With that power and that size, he’ll be a threat for years to come,” predicted Federer. “Does he occasionally still benefit from being the unknown? Potentially yes, but even if you do know him, how do you counter the serve? It’s always going to be a hard thing. He’s nicely in the top 30 and now he’ll make his move up the rankings.
“I was impressed. He played great. He made it hard for me tonight. He kept himself in the match until the very end.”
Now, Federer is always gracious, in victory and defeat, but he had been challenged to the limit by Raonic Tuesday night in a third-round match at the BNP Paribas Open that lasted two hours and seven minutes and was dead even at the 1:55 mark.
Tennis, at this level, usually comes down to a handful of pivotal points, won and lost, and Federer essentially won the match with the match squared at a set apiece and three-all in the third.
Raonic was on serve and he had been throwing in bombs all night – nine aces up to that point, lots more service winners. But at 30-40, on Raonic’s serve, Federer craftily handled the pace and blocked a backhand short into the forecourt, forcing Raonic to come into the net. From there, Raonic didn’t have a lot of options, so he chipped it back into the open court and Federer showed, with one brilliant shot, why he’s the No. 3 player in the world and the winner of 16 career Grand Slams.
Federer smacked a backhand passing shot past Raonic to break and then held his own serve twice more to record a 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-4 victory.
It was close, it was a test of wills but ultimately, Federer prevailed, advancing to a fourth-round meeting with Thomaz Bellucci of Argentina. Bellucci, unseeded and ranked No. 50 in the world, won his third-round match in a walkover when Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko became the latest player in the tournament forced to withdraw because of a stomach virus.
Federer too has been unwell this week, but he had enough in the tank to eliminate the 21-year-old Raonic in the feature match of the night. Normally, Federer is a fan favourite, but the crowd was divided and there were many in the stands – snowbirds presumably - cheering for Raonic as well.
“It was good in general,” said Raonic. “I think it just came down to a few poorly executed plays as well as a few times just picking the wrong shot. With experience, hopefully I’ll catch on to that.”
At a time when Serbia’s Novak Djokovic has grabbed the No. 1 ranking ahead of him, Federer came into the match as one of the hottest players on the tour. He had a 34-2 match record since the U.S. Open, losing only to Rafael Nadal (in the Australian Open semifinals) and to American John Isner in Davis Cup play.
In the game within the game, it was always going to be how well Federer handled Raonic’s overpowering serve. Answer: About as well as anyone could.
Coming into Indian Wells, Raonic led the ATP tour in aces (278), service-games won (95 per cent), first-serve points won (84 per cent) and break points saved (81 per cent). In winning at Chennai, he held serve in all 48 games. But Federer is so experienced that he eventually started to figure it out.
After both players held serve throughout the opening set, which went to Raonic in a tiebreaker, Federer ended up breaking Raonic three times in all, twice in the second set.
“Finally being on the court with him for over 40 minutes gave me a chance to see his serve and how it works – what is his favourite serve, how does he use it, what is his pattern,” said Federer. “I was getting to the ball often, in the beginning, but just not making the plays. That was hurting me early on. Once I got that going, maybe his serving just dropped a tiny bit and gave me more opportunities off his second serve.
“The longer I stayed out there, the better I started to feel.”
Raonic was candid too: “I was struggling with the serve today. I felt like I could have served better.”
Still, it was an instructive week for Raonic, who came into Indian Wells ranked 37th a year ago and defeated Marsel Ilhan and Mardy Fish in straight sets before losing to American teenager Ryan Harrison in the third round. As a result, he defended his ranking points and now moves onto Miami and the Sony Ericsson Open where he lost in the second round a year ago.
In that 12-month period, Raonic’s game has shown growth at virtually every level. His return of serve is better. His put-away ability is better. And his on-court demeanour, which was always good – almost to the point of being Zen-like – is still one of his biggest assets.
Raonic suggested that ultimately he would like to earn the sort of respect that Federer gets so often from an opponent.
“Respect is a big thing,” said Raonic. “There are a lot of people going out against a player like Federer that are tight or just have a big respect for him and sort of get caught up in that. And if you have this kind of respect when matches start, throughout the middle of the matches, through big points, closing out matches, it's tougher for the other guy having the thought in their mind.
“With my aggressive game style, it's important that people knowing if I do get ahead a break or if I do get my chances, I'm able to serve out matches from quite early."
The opening set, which went to Raonic, came down to one error by Federer on the eighth point in the tiebreaker, when he pushed a forehand long, the only service point lost by either player.
Federer came back to win the second set decisively, breaking Raonic’s serve in the first and fifth games of the set, as the young Canadian appeared to lose his focus for a time, setting up the dramatic final set.
“There are a few things I could have done better,” said Raonic, “but I was there competing with what people would say was the greatest player of all time. That’s definitely a positive and something to build off of.”