While you’re pretty sure he didn’t mean to, Novak Djokovic really put Milos Raonic’s nose in it after their fourth-round match at the Australian Open.
In his previous outing, the world No. 1 injured his midriff, and said afterward “it’s a tear, definitely, of the muscle.”
When you or I tear a muscle, we cry like babies, go to the hospital and spend a month in bed. When Djokovic does it, he drinks a pound of pulped lemongrass, harmonizes himself with the vibrations of the Earth and the muscle reattaches itself in a few hours. Or something like that.
Because there is no way anyone – I don’t care how fit you are, what your pain tolerance is or what darks arts your physiotherapist practices – can play three hours of professional tennis with a shredded stomach.
This put Raonic in a pickle. A match no one expected him to win, everyone now expected him to win.
So what do you suppose happened? Djokovic rope-a-doped the Canadian, letting him have a peek in the first set and then flipping him the second. But by the third, the Serb lay on the gas and that was that. It ended in a workmanlike 7-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.
In the postmatch interview, looking about as tired as the average person would after two-at-a-timing the steps to the second floor, Djokovic gave the impression he’d just won while playing with one leg folded into his pocket.
“If it’s any tournament but a Grand Slam, I would withdraw from the event.”
Later in the presser, Djokovic talked about all the painkillers and “medicaments” he was on.
Great. That must feel just great if you’re Raonic. What an amazing way to launch your 2021 campaign – $315,000 in walking-around money and a slap across the face from the best in the world.
And that was the happiest Canadian story coming out of Australia.
Tennis was like everything else in 2020 – a washout.
A bunch of top players either wholly or partially opted out. There was no Wimbledon. The French Open was played out of order in fall and largely ignored. I double-dog-dare you to remember who won the U.S. Open, and that was only five months ago.
The Australian was meant to be the great reset. Everyone not named Federer is back.
The big story globally was the return of Bianca Andreescu. Every sizeable outlet ran a profile of her year of rest and relaxation. Every one of them got the same details from Andreescu – what books she read, which video games she played, how fit she felt.
In all her careful laying out of nice, human touches, Andreescu forgot one thing – tennis. She showed up in Australia holding the racquet like a sledgehammer. She just barely made it out of the first round, and probably regretted doing that when she was getting repeatedly dunked on in the second.
There is a rhythm to the “sports star returns” story. The players instinctively know how they’re supposed to go. Be humble, and hit hard on the idea that you are coming back even better. Sure, you lost millions of dollars and you’re probably going to need a walker by the time you’re 40, but you wouldn’t change that exploding knee for anything.
In Andreescu’s case, the game changed around her. When she left, her skillset – speed and court coverage combined with maximum power – was close to unique. That’s why, once she worked up a little momentum, she was able to steamroll the women’s game.
Unfortunately for Andreescu, her colleagues were paying attention. Eighteen months later, half the WTA has adopted the Andreescu template. Every woman out there looks bigger and stronger. It’s bad for the joints, but amazing for the bank balance.
Considering that, Andreescu should have slow-rolled her return. Played in a few minor tournaments. Done a few less interviews. Created a less frothing anticipation.
Because now she is underwater, and won’t resurface until she’s won something people care about. This is the problem with becoming a Grand Slam champion. People expect you to do it again.
Though still very young (20), Andreescu already seems like someone who’s mid-career. All the local attention will fall on her for the foreseeable future. Which is great news for Canada’s top men’s players. As long as Andreescu’s out there, everyone else gets to swim in her draft.
That frees Raonic to settle into his major-tournament pattern. He swats aside a few nobodies who can’t track his 750 mile-an-hour serve, never mind return it. Then as soon as he meets a player who can, he folds up like an XXL lawn chair.
You gotta say, it’s not a bad way to make a living. Raonic works for a week at each of the Slams, knocks off victories at a couple of minor tournaments, keeps his ranking respectable, and as long as he remains ambulatory, makes a couple of million bucks in prizes a year.
If Raonic were a hockey player, we’d say he’s having a fantastic career. It’s only because he plays tennis that it seems like a bit of a letdown. He’s been in the general vicinity of greatness, but never once spent the night.
That pall is beginning to settle over his heirs as well. Denis Shapovalov got knocked out in the third round by Félix Auger-Aliassime. These two seem to play each other a suspicious amount in majors – three times in the past nine. Clearly, it’s an anti-Canadian conspiracy.
Coming off that victory, Auger-Aliassime collapsed in a five-setter against a 27-year-old qualifier playing in his first major.
So, from the Canadian perspective, the great restart of Grand Slam tennis is a damp squib. Not a golden child or breakthrough hope in sight. Just a lot of the regulars doing regular things.
Which reminds you how quickly we can get used to, even a bit bored of, nice things.