It was a match there for the taking, Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., in control for the better part of two sets. He was facing Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Wednesday in the round of 16 at the ATP World Tour Masters event here. Already the two had played an epic match last summer at the London Olympics, Tsonga prevailing 25-23 in the third set.
But after breezing to a win in the opening set Wednesday, Raonic faltered at crucial moments in both the second and third, serving a double fault on match point that permitted Tsonga to perform a great escape.
It finished 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 for Tsonga and will send Raonic off to Miami, the next Masters event, with another learning moment under his belt as he tries to crack the men's top 10.
"It's not a great feeling right now," said a disappointed Raonic, who thought he permitted Tsonga to find his rhythm by not keeping the pressure on him the way he did in the early stages of the match. "Then he played well and I started making sloppier and sloppier mistakes, a lot of short forehands missed. It hurts because you'll pay for that against these guys."
The match was the exact opposite of the one he won a day earlier against Croatia's Marin Cilic, in which Cilic started well, but wilted under the weight of Raonic's heavy game.
Overall, it looks as if Raonic is adding a few more shots to his arsenal and improving some others; his service return against Cilic in particular was impressive, and his ability to scorch a few winners on the backhand side is new as well.
But the toughest gains to make usually involve the mental side of the game, and even in the opening set Wednesday, Raonic had a few nervous moments before he served it out. With time and experience, those decisive points – the ones that change the direction of matches, seasons and careers – may start to go his way more frequently.
Against Tsonga, things were going Raonic's way for much of the second set. He lost only three points in his first five service games, and at one point, had won 13 points in a row on service. But serving at 5-6 and looking as if they were marching inexorably toward a tiebreaker, Raonic – in quick succession – missed a volley, missed a backhand, then drove a ball long, just over the base line.
It was close enough that Raonic challenged the point, but didn't get the call. At love-40, Raonic saved one break point, then sprayed a forehand long to give Tsonga the set and square the match.
The third set was moving along briskly in the thick desert heat, the match on serve until the 10th game when Raonic again tightened up. He was up 30-15 in the game, then missed a forehand wide, netted a backhand volley, then suddenly, they were at match point. Usually so consistent on his serve, Raonic double faulted to hand the match to Tsonga, the tournament's No. 8 seed, who will face the winner of the Novak Djokovic-Sam Querrey match in the quarter-finals.
Raonic thought he handled Tsonga's game much better this time than he did when he played that three-setter on the Wimbledon grass.
"He's a much more comfortable player on grass than I am," Raonic said. "This time I felt like I came out playing better than him quite a bit. I sort of let that get away from me.
"He's, what, a former No. 5? He's played Grand Slam finals, two times semis at Wimbledon. He knows how to play. He knows how to get out of those situations. I sort of had my foot on the pedal and I sort of just let off. It's dangerous, especially against any guy in this group."
There was a confusing moment on the final point, when Raonic's serve was called out, but neither player moved to the net to shake hands. According to Raonic, the problem was not with the video review – he said he knew his serve was going wide when he hit it – but because the players had lost track of the score.
"The guy [umpire] said, 'Game, set, match,' like really quick. I didn't know it was over. … I thought I was down 3-5 after that. And then I thought about it, and then I thought it was match. Then I saw Jo wasn't coming up, so I thought, 'Okay, it's 3-5.'"