The progression of Milos Raonic at this seminal opening Masters event of the season was evident on Wednesday in his match against Andy Murray, the No. 5 seed.
This is the sort of match he didn’t win here in the past. He came close against Roger Federer – but lost in three sets two years ago. He came close against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last year – but lost in three sets.
But on this day, he battled back and took a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 win over Murray at the BNP Paribas Open.
It is Raonic’s best showing in this event. It was Raonic’s third career victory over Murray and it came on a day when twice he needed to battle back from deficits that could be psychologically difficult to overcome.
Raonic dropped the first set by losing eight consecutive points at four-all. In the second set, the two were on serve until the 12th game when Raonic started swinging out and broke Murray at 15-40, with a cross-court passing shot.
In the third set, Raonic got down an early break at 1-2, but got it back in the next game and then broke Murray again in the sixth game, a lead he would never relinquish. Murray save a match point on his own serve in the eighth game of the third set, but Raonic then served it out at love, with a definitive cross-court winner punctuating an aggressively played second half of the match which put Murray, an exceptional retriever, on the defensive throughout.
Raonic served 15 aces in all, compared to just four for Murray, but it was the decisiveness of his groundstrokes in the third set that made all the difference.
Murray said that his collapse in the third set was mostly about a lack of confidence in his game.
"There's no other explanation for missing those shots, I don't think," said Murray. "I haven't lost bad matches this year - a couple of them were close - but today, the third set was just a bad set and that's what's disappointing to me because the rest of the match was okay."
Murray went on to say: "To get broken two consecutive times in that situation isn't good enough. I mean, I played poor tennis at that stage. I didn't make enough balls; missed easy shots - like really easy shots, not like ones that are just deep balls where you're just trying to get it back into play. There were some where he was standing in the net and I just had to hit it to the other side. Missing shots like that.
"It's tough to win matches like that, because against him, he obviously wins a lot of free points with his serve. So over the course of the set, if you give up enough unforced errors on basic shots, then with the amount of free points he gets on his serve, that's going to add up to a negative result.
Murray wasn't prepared to use his recovery from last year's back surgery as an excuse. Murray didn't play again after the Sept. 23 operation until January, when he played in Doha. Since then, he's played in the Australian Open, Rotterdam and Acapulco two weeks ago, where he lost in three sets to rising star Grigor Dimitrov.
"Right now I'm not pulling up after matches like that stiff or sore or anything like that," said Murray. "So I think I'm match fit, match tight. Maybe I'm making some bad decisions in those situations.
"But I'll need to have a think about it and have a look at what happened. But, you know, there wasn't a huge explanation for it, because the shots I was missing, like I say, it wasn't like one shot in particular when I'd miss every shot. First serve percentage dropped; missed a lot of backhands; missed a few easy forehand passes, as well. So all of the shots kind of deserted me a bit."
With the win, Raonic moves on to the quarter-finals and will play Ukraine’s Alexander Dolgopolov, who eliminated Italy’s Fabio Fognini in straight sets. Dolgopolov, the 28th seed, previously eliminated top-ranked Rafael Nadal in the round of 16.
Against Dolgopolov, who plays a pleasing, if unorthodox style, and hits the ball extremely hard, Raonic said the key for both players will be "keeping one another out of rhythm. For me, it's about keeping the points shorter. For him, it's about throwing stuff you wouldn't expect.
"I think the most important thing is obviously my serve - and the beauty of that is nobody can affect me. The ball is in my hand, and I serve it up and I toss it up when I want to. It's going to be about controlling the center of the court, sort of stepping up, and when I do get ahead in the points, staying ahead. And like I was today, closing out certain situations, keeping the pressure on him. Obviously there's going to be certain parts of the match that I'm just going to have to play a little bit more and make him play.
"But it's all very situational stuff. I think dictating and imposing my game on him rather than him imposing on me is the most important thing."
Should Raonic defeat Dolgopolov, he would likely face one of two Swiss players, either Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka, in the semi-finals. Wawrinka and Federer were scheduled to play Kevin Anderson and Tommy Haas respectively later in the day.
In the immediate aftermath of the win, Raonic thanked a pro-Canadian crowd, referenced the snowstorm that was playing havoc with southern Ontario and mentioned that the win came on the 20th anniversary of his parents immigrating to Canada. He was a happy fellow, especially since this was his first outing since injuring his left leg at the Australian Open.