MELBOURNE, Australia – Alexander Zverev and Milos Raonic have both been No. 3 in the world.
But the seven-years-younger German already has more career titles. And he’s currently ranked 13 spots above the 28-year-old Canadian.
But here’s the thing.
Raonic has been in a Wimbledon final. And but for a truly poorly-timed adductor injury in Melbourne in 2016, he might well have been in the Australian Open final that year as well. He’s made five other Slam quarterfinals, and Wimbledon semi in 2014.
So on resumé, in these supremely significant circumstances, he probably shouldn’t be the underdog against Zverev. The 21-year-old German still battles to be considered a Grand Slam contender, despite the brilliance of his early career.
And so it was on Monday at the Australian Open, when form held
For two sets, Zverev was tight as a drum. His second serve failed him. But even Zverev made it competitive in the third set, it was too far gone. And in unexpectedly routine fashion, Raonic is into another Australian Open quarter final after a 6-1, 6-1, 7-6 (5) victory he wrapped up in less than two hours.
“I played bad. The first two sets especially I played horrible. Yeah, I mean, it’s just tough to name on one thing. I didn’t serve well, didn’t play well from the baseline. Against a quality player like him, it’s tough to come back from that,” said Zverev, whose racket destruction at 1-6, 1-4 was arguably the most havoc he created all day.
Zverev remains stuck at one career Grand Slam quarterfinal (or better) appearance – last year at the French Open.
For Raonic, it’s No. 9.
From a tight quarterfinal loss to Daniil Medvedev in his season opening tournament in Brisbane a few weeks ago, Raonic came into Melbourne with a fresh mindset.
“I think it was all really emotional and mental. I believe I had eight break chances in those first two sets against (Medvedev). So I had more than enough opportunities to make the most of it. … But then I got a little bit too down on myself, and I think that sort of shined a light on something that I really have to do differently at this event,” Raonic said.
“And I think I have worked on that, and I think I have also had to play against top players where I couldn’t afford to be undisciplined in that regard.”
Tough draw turns into good draw
After coming up against the dangerous Nick Kyrgios in the first round, and the dangerous Stan Wawrinka in the second round, Raonic got a (relative) breather against the unseeded Pierre-Hugues Herbert.
Drawing Zverev, when the possibilities for the No. 16 seed in the round of 16 were Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Zverev, also qualifies as a break.
So does getting No. 28 seed Lucas Pouille. The Frenchman is his first Slam quarterfinal since the 2016 US Open.
For Pouille, just getting there after five first-round losses in his first five trips to Melbourne is a victory. One of those defeats, in 2016, was inflicted upon him by Raonic,.
The Canadian is 3-0 in his career against the Frenchman. And that includes two victories in Australia.
Shades of 2016 for Raonic
This is Raonic’s best Australian tennis since that 2016 tournament, when he was up two sets to one against Andy Murray before an adductor injury scuttled his chances in the semifinals. He also had defeated Federer in the final of Brisbane leading up to it.
It’s hard to accurately convey how devastated Raonic was after that Murray match, especially compared to his generally composed demeanour in defeat.
Even his hair was drooping.
Normally strong on eye contact, he looked down disconsolately between responses He avoided anyone’s direct gaze as he tried – only somewhat successfully – to keep his emotions in check.
“Probably the most heartbroken I felt on court, but that’s what it is,” he said then.
Through three years of trials and tribulations since then, the Canadian feels he’s a better player now. But he admits that many aspects of the competitive environment seemed easier in 2016.
Raonic played spectacular tennis that year. And it was crowd-pleasing tennis, too.
Your average tennis fan would posit that’s a factual impossibility. But the crowd reactions proved otherwise.
” I think back then I just found some situations a little bit easier to deal with, because I had three or two good years from 2014 to 2015 before that, and it was sort of — you don’t have to think about things as much. Instinct takes over when you have played that many matches consecutively,” he said.
“Now you always have to think about things a bit more because you’re always trying to search for that rhythm, that – sort of – what should you do. Whereas in those situations I don’t think I was really asking myself. I was trusting a lot more.”
We’ll see what the rest of the 2019 edition holds for him.