The injury, to a tendon in his left leg, occurred in January, during the Australian Open, and Milos Raonic hasn't been right physically since then. It was one of those lingering, impossible-to-predict-when-you're-better injuries that kept him on the sidelines for, among other events, Canada's Davis Cup tie against Japan.
Since then, Raonic has been rehabbing and practising, but knowing the first Masters 1000 event of the season – the BNP Paribas Open – was also going to double as the first real test of his return. Raonic barely slid past journeyman Édouard Roger-Vasselin in his first outing of the tournament, relying heavily on his serve – 33 aces – to pull out the match in a third-set tiebreaker. By contrast, Monday's third-round match against Colombia's Alejandro Falla was a comparative walk in the park, Raonic winning 6-4, 6-3 to set-up a meeting with the No. 5-seeded Andy Murray in the round of 16.
The 23-year-old Canadian is 2-1 lifetime against Murray, who is recovering from back surgery that limited his play in the final quarter of last season and resulted in his rank dropping to No. 6 in the world. Murray is struggling to find his form as well and had to go three sets twice to get to this point in the tournament, something Raonic says he's aware of but not concentrating on.
"You obviously do your homework and see how a guy is progressing throughout the year," said the native of Thornhill, Ont., "but he's in his situation where he didn't play for a big chunk of time and I'm in mine. So just like playing anybody, I have to buckle down and focus on myself."
Falla is ranked No. 75 in the world and doesn't have nearly the weapons to challenge Raonic when he's on form. Even though he's still wearing blue tape to stabilize his left leg, Raonic moved around the court with authority Monday.
"I felt sore yesterday, but today I felt good," said Raonic, who was heading back on the court Monday night, to play doubles with Latvia's Ernests Gulbis against the Swiss tandem of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.
There was the usual pro-Canadian crowd that always surfaces in the California desert, a home game for Raonic in many ways. Falla may have done Raonic a favour in the second round by knocking out the No. 18 seed, the erratic but dangerous Jerzy Janowicz, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist.
Raonic lost in a memorable three-setter here to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga this past year, and an equally memorable three-setter with Federer the year before that. The desert, for whatever reason, has been good to him since his breakthrough on the tour – and Monday, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, on Court 3, he made the most of his opportunities against Falla.
Leading 5-4 in the first set, Raonic capitalized on his second set point when he hit a fabulous cross-court passing shot from deep in the forehand corner that left Falla helplessly watching at the net.
Raonic was briefly tested in the fifth game of the second set, but fended off two break points. With the set proceeding along serve, Falla began the eighth game with a double fault and never quite got into the rhythm, Falla netting a forehand at 30-40 to give Raonic a break. He served it out at love.
On the women's side, Aleksandra Wozniak of Montreal joined fellow Canadian Eugenie Bouchard in the round of 16 by defeating Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 6-7 (3), 6-0 in the third round. Wozniak's victory earned her a date with the No. 1 seed, China's Li Na, in the next round.
Wozniak upset world No. 15, Sabine Lisicki, in the second round as she tries to get her career back on the rails, at the not-so-ripe old age of 26. Wozniak was ranked No. 275 in the world going into this event and the victories will give her 120 additional ranking points and move her high enough to at least get into French Open qualifying.
"It's good," Wozniak said. "I'm very happy. Step by step, I'm finding my game and that offensive way I used to play."
The Canadian said it will be "a privilege" to play Li, the 2014 Australian Open champ.
"I'll have to step up and play the way I can, the way I've been playing this week. For sure, she likes to dictate from the first ball. She plays such a strong ball. So stay on her and play a strong match and see what I can do tomorrow."
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