INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The last time Milos Raonic played the BNP Paribas Open in 2016, he lost to Novak Djokovic in the final.
For five straight years, the 27-year-old Canadian went one round better each year – from the third round through to the ultimate one.
After missing it a year ago, and dealing with a laundry list of physical woes, and starting the 2018 season at less than peak fitness and searching for a coach, perhaps Raonic was looking for his oasis.
And maybe he has found it.
Raonic defeated No. 18 seed Sam Querrey 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 Friday to advance to the semifinals, where he will face Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina.
“A lot of things were very good. … I have to be disciplined with myself to put a good level consistently throughout, from start to end. I was a little bit up and down too much, and if I don’t get lucky like I did at the end of that first set, it’s a very different storyline,” Raonic said. “So it’s important, I’m happy about it, but still got a long ways to go, a lot of things to keep working on and doing better.”
Calm, quiet, easy Indian Wells
Del Potro, who has been dealing with a sore back, also needed three sets (against Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany) to get through.
“It’s a little bit quieter here. It’s easier to be around the tennis. You don’t have to fight through traffic to get here. You get here with ease. So I think that gives me a personal calm.,” Raonic said. ” I think the conditions help. Obviously this year it’s quite a bit slower than it has been in the past, but the ball still moves through the air even though the court slows it down a bit. But it’s always bounced high.
“So I think there have been a lot of things that have contributed to me feeling comfortable here,” he added.
Things have unfolded in just the right way – including a walkover in the fourth round over an ill Marcos Baghdatis – and Raonic has taken full advantage of it.
He squeezed into the last seeded spot, No. 32, only late in the game. So he got here early enough to have plenty of practice on the rather unique courts.
And in his first match, he met much-younger countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime, who had just won the first ATP Tour-level match of his career and who remains, understandably, a little in awe of a player he has looked up to.
Pumped up against the kid
Raonic remember seeing “little Félix” around the national training centre in Montreal when he first arrived there from Toronto. He’d have been 16 or 17; Auger-Aliassime around seven.
The notion of losing in that situation definitely pushed a few buttons.
“Yeah, the pressure of it, it sort of was on the end of things. I think that also, at the end of that match there was some kind of sense of relief, as well, to get through that. Especially with not just everybody else, but myself, questioning … how things were going to come along,” he said.
If there was relief, there also perhaps was a spark that Raonic might not have had in his three earlier tournaments, where he went out at the first hurdle twice, and only won one match in all.
After that victory over Auger-Aliassime, in which he played very well, he was in the tournament in a way he might not quite have been in the others.
“Second match also I was a little bit borderline there, and I put it together today, as well. So there has been a lot of moments of relief that have occurred throughout this week so far,” Raonic said.
Aggressive play, simplified tennis
The Canadian has been ultra-aggressive on the ultra-slow courts, something that might seem counter-intuitive but in reality makes perfect sense for him.
Raonic’s serve – especially the kick serve that bounces up higher here than almost anywhere – remains as effective as it is anywhere. Never a player who will outlast a relentless baseliner even at his very best, the Canadian’s current fitness level and lack of match play would strike a line through that tactic anyway.
Goran Ivanisevic, the coach who is on trial with Raonic through this event and the next one in Miami, is telling him to keep it simple.
“The one thing he has done is he’s made the objectives very clear with me and really tried to simplify things, just so I can stick to the things I know how to do well and not try to overcomplicate my tennis at this moment,” Raonic said. “When you make a decision, go for it. Don’t question it. Don’t think about the ‘what ifs’. What should I do? What shouldn’t I do? Just stick (to it).”
No doubt Ivanisevic, the former coach of Marin Cilic, will get far more credit than he warrants for Raonic’s good week. Punditry is like that. It’s more likely that he’s in the right place, right when Raonic is healthy enough to truly start his season.
The Canadian probably doesn’t need a former Wimbledon champion to tell him to keep it simple. Any tennis fan watching him probably could offer that same advice. But there’s no doubt it’s what he needs to hear at the moment. And apply it.
“At the end of the day, my tennis should not be complicated. First chance I have, go forward, try to serve well, and rip the ball when you have the chance,” he said.
Raonic 2, del Potro 1
Raonic and del Potro split two matches within a two-month period back in 2013. Back then, del Potro had fully come back from his first wrist surgery and was in the top 10. Raonic was on his way up and just outside it.
A lot has happened in the interim – two big men battling their bodies.
They didn’t play again until a year ago in Delray Beach. Raonic won that one.
“Well, he has everything to be in the top again. His game is so good. His serves are very strong. He’s very good player,” del Potro said of Raonic. “So he just need couple of weeks to improve his ranking and be what he deserve to be.”
As it is, Raonic will make a nice leap from his current No. 38. Asked earlier in the week what emotions it summoned when he saw that number next to his name, Raonic said “anger”.
He’ll be at least No. 25, no matter what happens. If he can beat del Potro, he would move up three more spots. If he can win the tournament – making that one extra round to complete his Indian Wells staircase, he would be No. 14 and well on his way back to the top 10.