Nadal out of Paris, Djokovic back at No. 1

The order of play Wednesday in Paris looked pretty box-office.

Roger Federer was to wrap up the day session against Milos Raonic, with No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal opening the night session against countryman Fernando Verdasco.

In the end, fans didn’t get to see either one.

Federer received a walkover from Raonic, who cited a right elbow injury. The Canadian had survived a three-tiebreak victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first ound Tuesday night.

As for Nadal, who hasn’t played since the US Open because of a recurrence of his patella tendonitis, his Paris Masters was over before it began.

The knee seems fine – better than he had anticipated.

But an abdominal injury has popped up in the last few days. And so, he pulled out, replaced by lucky loser Malek Jaziri.

Risk of a abdominal tear

Here’s what Nadal said during a press conference late Wednesday afternoon – the mere announcement of which presaged the worst.

“I arrived here a couple of days ago. As everybody knows, I have been out of competition since the US Open. I come back, and it was great to be here in Paris for a couple of days. And I enjoy it. I feel myself, in terms of tennis, better than what I really thought one week ago,” he said.

“But the last few days I started to feel a little bit the abdominal, especially when I was serving. I was checking with the doctor, and the doctor says it’s recommended to not play. Because if I continue, the abdominal maybe can break, and can be a major thing. And I really don’t want that. It has been a tough year until that moment, in terms of injuries. So I want to avoid drastic things.

“Maybe I can play today. But the doctor says if I want to play the tournament – if I want to try to win the tournament – the abdominal will break for sure. So it would be not fair, and not good for me – for nobody – to go inside the court knowing probably the full tournament will not be possible to play,” Nadal added. “Of course I am not happy, but of course I have to accept and stay positive.”

Djokovic returns to No. 1

With the withdrawal, Novak Djokovic will return to the No. 1 ranking next Monday.

That will be true, regardless of how far he goes into the Paris Masters draw.

He will be the first player to be ranked outside the top 20, and be No. 1 in the same season since Marat Safin in 2000. Safin was as lot as No. 38 that season, before going all the way to the top of the rankings.

Djokovic began the season ranked No. 14 and dropped as low as No. 22 before the French Open. At that point, he was 7,110 points behind Nadal in the standings.

Since then, he has returned to full form and has won Wimbledon, Cincinnati, the US Open and the Shanghai Masters. Since Djokovic didn’t play after Wimbledon a year ago because of the ongoing elbow injury for which he had surgery in February, he was able to make up a lot of ground.

Concurrently Nadal, struggling with his knee, dropped points he was defending as the US Open and Beijing champion in 2017.

paris

There may be an element of the precautionary with his, as the ATP Tour Finals begin in less than two weeks. As well, Djokovic is in full form despite seeming a bit under the weather in his second-round win over Joao Sousa in Monday. He had a day off Wednesday to help him recover.

So Nadal was faced with the likelihood that if he wanted to retain the No. 1 ranking for at least one more week – assuming this was a factor at all – he might well have to win the tournament despite Djokovic having the tougher road in the bottom half.

Knowing he wasn’t in a great position to do that and risking tearing the abdominal in the process, Nadal wisely erred on the side of caution.

In addition to Raonic and Nadal, Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics also withdrew from the tournament Wednesday. That gave No. 13 seed Fabio Fognini of Italy a walkover.

So Federer and Fognini will be on even terms when they meet in the third round.

(Screenshots of Nadal from TennisTV)

Report: Milos Raonic’s agent fired, still managing him

TORONTO – As Milos Raonic prepares for a challenging first-round match against David Goffin of Belgium Monday night at his hometown Rogers Cup, word is out that his longtime agent at CAA was terminated last fall.

But Amit Naor remains the 27-year-old Canadian’s manager.

Rumours about this had been circulating for awhile. But Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Journal, an excellent journalist, was able to nail it all down in a story published Monday.

Kaplan has broken the news that Naor was fired last Oct. 23, after a 2 1/2-month investigation into workplace harassment.

CAA made no official announcement of any kind about the matter.

Out of respect for the extensive work Kaplan did over a significant period of time in breaking this story, we won’t cut and paste it here. Click here to read the piece.

Here is a brief summary.

“Verbal, emotional and sexual harassment”

According to Kaplan, tennis manager Stephanie Lopez, now 28, went to the head of CAA’s tennis division, Steven Heumann last fall alleging that Naor, 51, subjected her to “verbal, emotional and sexual harassment”.

She is currently on leave.

Kaplan also reports that Lopez filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the spring. Lopez said she “endured multiple incidents of retaliation” from Heumann after the firing.

A CAA spokesperson told Kaplan their investigation determined there was no retaliation.

Kaplan reports that even after he was fired, Naor remained a manager for three CAA clients. And, in that capacity has communication with the company’s agents.

agent
Raonic, Berdych and Dominic Thiem are reportedly still being managed by Naor, even though CAA terminated his employment.

In addition to Raonic, those two other clients also are high profile:  Dominic Thiem and Tomas Berdych.

As of last fall, on the official ATP list (likely not exhaustive or 100 per cent accurate), Thiem was listed officially as being represented by his coach, Gunther Bresnik although Kaplan reports that both Bresnik and Naor manage Thiem’s affairs.

Fadi Shalabi of Sporting Advantage Monaco was listed for Berdych.  Naor is listed for Raonic.

Also on Naor’s client list as of last fall were Ernests Gulbis, Taylor Fritz, Bradley Klahn and Bernard Tomic.

Naor represented Jack Sock early in his career. He also handled Novak Djokovic’s business affairs very early on – a decade ago – before Djokovic signed with CAA and Naor also joined the company. Djokovic left CAA in 2012.

He also coached Marat Safin.

agent
Naor with Raonic’s father, Dusan, supporting Raonic at Wimbledon.

The Israel-born Naor played professionally from 1985 to 1991. He reached a career high in singles of No. 245 in 1987 although he won just three matches at the ATP Tour level. Five of his six ATP Tournament appearances came at the now-defunct ATP event in Tel Aviv, Israel.

The CAA tennis division is small, and Naor’s clients reportedly make up the bulk of its revenue.

Raonic’s countrywoman, Genie Bouchard, also joined the CAA stable this spring, after stints with Lagardère, IMG and other agencies. She is represented by Matthew Fawcett.

Men’s quarters spark court assignment debate

WIMBLEDON – It wouldn’t be a Grand Slam without a good, old-fashioned debate about court assignments and scheduling and who’s being snubbed and who’s being given preferential treatment.

And so, as we arrive at the second Wednesday of Wimbledon and the men’s quarterfinals, we see three-time champion Novak Djokovic on Centre Court.

With that, we also see seven-time champion Roger Federer “relegated” to No. 1 Court for the first time in the tournament.

Actually, for the first time in three  years.

(Relegated is such a relative term here, as it is at Roland Garros where Court Philippe Chatrier and Court Suzanne Lenglen are considered virtual co-equals. Still, it’s a status thing that seems to mean a lot to some people).

Second trip to Centre Court for Djokovic

assignment
Djokovic has definitely been hard done by at times with the scheduling. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The way people have been whinging, you’d think Djokovic had been turned away at the door to the celebrated Wimbledon Centre Court for failing to bring a jacket and tie.

That said, it’s fairly evident over the last few years that despite his sterling resumé, he’s rarely gotten the top-two treatment accorded here to Federer and, less defendably, to Nadal.

The Serb was on Centre Court on Saturday for his third-round match against Brit Kyle Edmund, after being relegated to No. 2 Court for his second round.

Until Manic Monday, there was never a choice to be made between Federer and Djokovic in terms of courts assignments. In opposite sections of the draw, they were playing on different days.

The choice, then, has been between Djokovic and Nadal – currently the No. 1 ranked player in the world, even if he is the No. 2 seed here because of the weighted grass-court seedings.

Djokovic is currently ranked No. 21 and seeded No. 12.

Nadal on Centre every match

Nadal has won out each time there was a choice to be made between the two. The Spaniard’s match against Juan Martin del Potro will be the fifth straight time he has been on Centre Court.

And the quarterfinals are the last opportunity to play anywhere else but Centre Court.

Nadal warms up on Court 15 Wednesday morning, ahead of his match later in the day against Juan Martin del Potro. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Djokovic said, after he squeezed his Monday victory over Khachanov in under the wire, that he had heard his last-on match was likely to be cancelled had the prior match between Kevin Anderson and Gaël Monfils had gone to a fifth set.

Meanwhile, a mixed doubles match involving Brit Jamie Murray and his partner Victoria Azarenka was played on Centre Court, with the roof closed and the lights switched to finish the third set.

It could all have been even worse. The absence of Andy Murray, who is pretty much an automatic (perhaps even more than Federer) to get a Centre Court slot made life a little easier this year for a lot of people.

Mid-match relocation rare

Djokovic dealt with that last year as well. The tournament wouldn’t move his Monday match, delayed by rain under the Centre Court roof to finish it.

(Tournaments rarely relocate a match that’s already in progress to another court. But it does happen. Notably in 2014 here, Genie Bouchard’s first-round match against Magdalena Rybarikova on Court 12 was moved to Centre Court, under the roof, on a day where just about everything was wiped out by rain.

There was a specific scenario involved there. The winner was to play Brit Johanna Konta. And they needed a Centre Court slot for her. And that was going to be difficult to manage had the second-round match been delayed a day, because of the other high-profile matches that needed to be scheduled. So yes, it’s pretty much all about television).

Last year’s stubbornness about not moving Djokovic’s match meant he had to finish up Tuesday. And on Wednesday, he had to retire in his quarterfinal match against Tomas Berdych. He didn’t play the rest of the season because of his elbow injury.

Luckily, that repeat scenario was avoided. Because Djokovic would have been right to raise a huge stink if it did.

assignment
The three kings of tennis practiced side by side by side on Sunday at Aorangi Park. But for the actual match scheduling, Djokovic is often the odd man out.

Federer to No. 1 Court, TV follows

So the seven-time champion Federer therefore led things off on No. 1 Court Wednesday for the first time in the tournament, facing No. 8 seed Anderson of South Africa.

Generally, the BBC’s main station is the spot for Centre Court action, while BBC2 has No. 1 Court.

Except … as Wednesday’s coverage began, Djokovic and Nishikori were nowhere to be seen on BBC1. The BBC lunchtime news was all over its coverage of U.S. president Donald Trump and other world leaders in Brussels, and didn’t switch back to the tennis until about 1:50 p.m., when they showed the two players walking onto court (50 minutes earlier)

After that, Federer’s match was switched to BBC1, while Nishikori and Djokovic was being shown on BBC2. 

It was all a very delicate dance.

The last time Federer played on No. 1 Court was against Gilles Simon of France the same round  – the quarterfinals – three years ago. Djokovic beat Federer in that 2015 final. 

Switching the matchups

Nadal vs. del Potro is the “fan favorite” match of the day, with both players having huge followings. So Federer was moved, risking the wrath of the all-powerful Centre Court debenture holders.

It also led to some scrambling as Federer fans who had tickets for Centre Court assuming their favorite would be there, trying to swap them out for No. 1 Court.

Meanwhile, the generally accepted scheduling plan that the two players who meet in the next round should play at approximately the same time wherever possible, was turned upside down to make this change.

The winner of Federer-Anderson will play the winner of the match between Milos Raonic and John Isner. But they play one after the other on Court 1.

Same scenario on Centre Court, where the winner of Djokovic-Nishikori will play the winner of Nadal-del Potro. And yet, they follow each other.

In this configuration, Federer or Anderson, and Djokovic or Nishikori will both benefit from some extra down time before Friday’s semifinals.  

The later the better for the Americas

The later time slots are more coveted by television in North and South America – which applies to Raonic, Isner and del Potro.

1 p.m. is 8 a.m. in New York and Toronto, 9 a.m. in Buenos Aires and 5 a.m. in Los Angeles. So the later the better, as far as the television rights holders in those countries. But the same is somewhat true in Europe, where the early evening match can spill over into prime-time blocks.

So there are no correct answers to this puzzle. Even though it’s typically not about the “best tennis matchup” or about fairness to all players.

But in the end, everyone will play and win, somewhere. Someone’s nose will always be put out of joint. and Isner and Raonic are probably happy just to still be playing on the second Wednesday of Wimbledon.

They’d probably play on the Centre Court roof, if they were asked to.

Federer to Stuttgart final – and back to No. 1

On a day when three top players returning from long absences played quality tennis on the lawns of Stuttgart, Roger Federer came out a double winner.

Not only did he come out on top in his semifinal match against Nick Kyrgios, he also guaranteed a return to the top of the rankings on Monday.

Federer got past Nick Kyrgios 6-7 (2), 6-2, 7-6 (5) in Saturday’s second semifinal.

“I’m very happy, very relieved, I thought it was the tough match I expected. We’ve played so many breakers already I’ve stopped counting,” Federer said during his on-court interview. “I lost the last couple of matches with match points so (I thought) maybe it’s going to happen again.”

On Sunday, he will play former world No. 3 and Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic.

Raonic defeated No. 2 seed Lucas Pouille 6-4, 7-6 (3) in the first semifinal.

He’s No. 1

The victory ensured that Federer will return to the No. 1 ranking when the new list comes out on Monday.

Stuttgart
A match played in good spirits, with Kyrgios’s respect for Federer showing in everything he did. (TennisTV)

But, if he wants to stay at the top of the heap for Wimbledon, he will have to win the tournament in Halle, Germany next week. Otherwise, Rafael Nadal will take it back.

(Federer will still be the No. 1 seed, because of the grass-court seeding formula used for the men).

“It was close. Could have gone either way, naturally. I’m happy I got it and got back to world No. 1 next Monday, so it’s very exciting. And I got another final, so it’s great news,” Federer said.

This is Federer’s first tournament since Miami in late March, where he lost to Thanasi Kokkinakis in the first round, in a third-set tiebreak. In his previous match, he had lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the Indian Wells final – in a third-set tiebreak.

For Kyrgios, Stuttgart was a return to singles for the first time since the Houston clay-court event in early April.

He played the doubles in Lyon, on clay, the week before the French Open and won it with his friend Jack Sock. He also played doubles at the Surbiton Challenger last week, losing in the first round.

Stuttgart

Raonic back and looking for a title

For Raonic, Stuttgart is a return after he missed Rome and the French Open with a knee issue that began during the 2017 offseason. He spent six weeks unable to train full out, or even serve. And that compromised the beginning of his 2018 season.

His fitness went up several notches during the American hard-court swing through Indian Wells and Miami. He reached the semis in the desert and the quarters in Florida, losing to del Potro on both occasions.

But after giving a walkover to Marin Cilic in the third round in Monte Carlo, and losing to young countryman Denis Shapovalov in the same round in Madrid, the 27-year-old crossed off the clay-court season and began to prepare for the grass.

The Stuttgart final is his first since Istanbul a year ago, on clay.

He will be looking for his first title in 2 1/2 years – since Brisbane to start the 2016 season.

There, he defeated Federer in the final.

Stuttgart
“Really excited to play Milos. He’s in great shape again. it’s nice for him. And I hope we can play another great match.”

Federer is 10-3 against Raonic. He lost to him in five sets in the 2016 Wimbledon semifinals, and defeated him in straight sets in the 2017 quarterfinals.

(Screenshots from TennisTV)

Milos Raonic out of Roland Garros

It’s not a major shock, after Milos Raonic’s rather passive loss to Denis Shapovalov and his subsequent withdrawal from Rome.

But the 27-year-old Canadian announced on Twitter Sunday that he’s out of the French Open, too.

Raonic has been dealing with a meniscus issue since the off-season, when it was bad enough that he didn’t even get on court for six weeks.

After a slow start to the season, he came on at Indian Wells and Miami. But after two victories in Monte Carlo, he gave Marin Cilic a walkover.

And after upsetting No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid, he wasn’t nearly the same aggressive player in the 6-4, 6-4 loss to his young countryman, in their first-ever meeting.

Solid in Paris

Raonic has played well in Paris. As with many big servers, the surface still allows his serve to be effective, while giving him extra time to reach and set up for shots.

He has two fourth rounds, two third rounds and, in 2014, he reached the quarterfinals before losing to Novak Djokovic.

He missed the tournament in 2015, as well, with another of his many injury issues.

Raonic is defending 180 points from his round-of-16 effort there a year ago. His absence likely will drop him out of the top 30 from his current No. 28, but won’t inflict any major damage.

He’s entered in Stuttgart and then Queen’s Club on grass, which will give him some three weeks to get healthy again.

Aussie James Duckworth, with a protected ranking of No. 105, will take Raonic’s place in the main draw. The withdrawal came just minutes before the qualifying draw was to take place in Paris.

Shapovalov wins battle of Canada over Raonic

Milos Raonic walked onto Arantxa Sanchez court to meet younger countryman Denis Shapovalov Thursday with a smile on his face.

He left it the same way, all smiles at the net, despite being upset by his teenaged rival 6-4, 6-4 in the third round of the Mutua Madrid Open.

“Definitely one of my best days on clay. To be on the court against such a legend for me, and for my country, it was an honour. It was fun. There was no pressure on me, obviously a lot more on him playing a young guy coming up. But, I mean, I just enjoyed myself,” Shapovalov told the media in Madrid.

“To beat him, it was a huge confidence booster for me. The match felt like everything kind of went great. I was guessing a lot the right way on his serves. When I got my racquet on them, usually they were falling in. There’s nothing to criticize about my performance today.”

The No. 1 Canadian didn’t play the best tennis of his life. But he didn’t play poorly.

The match was on the racket of his 19-year-old countryman. And Shapovalov proved himself more than up to the task on an occasion that not only had significance as an opportunity to get to another Masters 1000 quarterfinal, but to upset the conventional order of tennis in his country.

Shapovalov
Shapovalov’s backhand was sturdy and stalwart in his win over Raonic. (TennisTV)

More balanced in his baseline attack than his more experienced rival, Shapovalov redlined his groundstrokes while minimizing his errors.

If that’s not a level of risk that will always work to his benefit, he made it work brilliantly on this day.

He hit 28 winners – 16 on the forehand, and made 17 unforced errors. Raonic was 14, and 14.

The 27-year-old had no answers from the back court. Worse, the depth of Shapovalov’s shots and Raonic’s inability to put enough serves into play made opportunities to come to the net on the return games rare. 

On Shapovalov’s serve, Raonic opted to stand much further back against the lefty than he had in the previous round against No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov. Shapovalov was able to both outside corners, with angle. And more often than not, Raonic was left defending.

He earned just one break point on Shapovalov’s serve. On his own serve, Raonic was fatally passive. 

Shapovalov
A mishit by Shapovalov in the seventh game of the first set resulted in the definitive break for Shapovalov, as Raonic couldn’t reach an impossibly awkward bounce. (TennisTV)
Shapovalov
“Sorry,” says Shapovalov, with an admirable effort at sincerity, as he breaks and goes on to win the first set. (TennisTV)

Serve not effective enough

And even when he was able to get a big forehand swipe on the ball, Shapovalov returned it back at him just as hard. When he left one short, Shapovalov put it away. Raonic rarely used his slice backhand, and in the topspin backhand game, he is very much Shapovalov’s lesser.

Shapovalov
Some of Shapovalov’s winning groundstrokes were so velocirapturous, even Raonic coach Goran Ivanisevic couldn’t help but be impressed. (TennisTV).

Raonic served at an 87 percent first-serve clip in the first set. He had seven aces in his first three service games. And yet, he won a fairly pedestrian (for him) 63 per cent of those points in that set.

He probably didn’t use the body serve enough. And he rarely tried the serve-volley play. 

Shapovalov put 16 returns in the court in the first set. He won 12 of those points (10 of the first 12). 

In the second set, Raonic was far more effective on the first serve, losing just three of 18 points. But his percentage dropped. And of the 10 second serves he hit, he managed to win just four points.

Placid versus peppy

The body language, no surprise, was at opposite extremes between the two. Raonic was benign, never mad at himself, but also never pumping himself up. There was very little reaction at all throughout.

Shapovalov was so full of nervous energy as he bounded to the net for the coin toss, he practically ran into chair umpire Damian Steiner. But he made that energy work for him. He seemed always in control from beginning to end.

It was a performance that allowed the 19-year-old to jump up a big rung on the maturity ladder.

His elder was very gracious at the net, approaching with a smile and offering a hug. And as Raonic left the court, he nodded to Shapovalov’s mother and coach, Tessa, who was applauding him off the court.

Raonic couldn’t really be mad at himself for what he didn’t do. Although he might look at the match again and rue the things he might have done.

He took the net 11 times, but won just five of those points. Shapovalov went 6-for-7.

Edmund next up for Shapovalov

In the Madrid Open quarterfinals, Shapovalov will meet another unseeded young player in Kyle Edmund of Great Britain.

Unlike his meeting with Raonic, which was a first, Shapovalov may know Edmund better than any other player he’s faced in his brief time on Tour.

This will be the fifth meeting between them, the first on clay. In the space of less than a year, between the first round of Davis Cup in 2017 and Brisbane to start this season, they played four matches.

Only two were completed. Shapovalov defeated Edmund 6-4 in the third set last summer at Queen’s Club, on grass. Edmund returned the favour in Brisbane, beating Shapovalov 6-4 in the third.

In the third round of the US Open last September, Edmund retired after the first game of the fourth set with a back issue.

They first met in Ottawa a little more than a year ago, when Canada took on Great Britain. That was the infamous match in which a clearly overwhelmed Shapovalov, quickly down two sets, let his emotions get the better of him and fired the tennis ball that hit chair umpire Arnaud Gabas in the eye, fracturing the socket.

Fifteen months later, Shapovalov no longer seems overwhelmed or unprepared for anything.

He’ll jump to about No. 34 in the rankings with the win, virtually guaranteeing himself a seed in Paris. If he can beat Edmund, he would jump into the top 30.

Meanwhile, Edmund will make his top-20 debut on Monday. With his quarterfinal effort, he has exactly the same number of ranking points – 1,905 – as Novak Djokovic, the player he upset in the second round in Madrid. With a win, he could jump to No. 16.

It’s been a good draw for Shapovalov, who has yet to face a seed. He defeated Benoit Paire, who had already eliminated No. 15 Lucas Pouille. And then Raonic, who had dispatched No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov. And now, Edmund, who took care of Djokovic.

Edmund defeated No. 8 seed David Goffin 6-2, 6-3 in the third round. to reach the clash with the Canadian.

Canada vs. Canada in Madrid as Raonic meets Shapovalov

There will be a Canadian in the quarterfinals of the Madrid Open this year – guaranteed.

And on Thursday, Milos Raonic and Denis Shapovalov will take the same court for the first time ever to determine who that will be.

The match will be on Arantxa Sanchez court, not before 2 p.m. Madrid time (8 a.m. EDT).

Raonic, the king of Canadian men’s tennis for so long, has never played Shapovalov, his current heir apparent even if his elder is a long, long way from passing the torch.

In fact, the two barely know each other. It’s unclear if they have ever practiced together. 

Shapovalov began his Davis Cup career with a playoff tie in late 2016. Raonic hasn’t played Davis Cup since a first-round tie in 2015. 

Both hail from the same area of Toronto: Raonic from Thornhill, Shapovalov from neighbouring Richmond Hill. But the nearly nine-year age gap is huge. By the time Shapovalov might even made made a viable practice partner back at home, Raonic had long left town to pursue his career.

In an interview after last year’s US Open, Shapovalov said the two had met “a couple of times”. “Really nice guy. But we just haven’t talked tennis too much. Helps me with opponents a little bit,” said Shapovalov, who has forged a much closer relationship with another Canadian rival, Vasek Pospisil.

Not only have the two bonded at Davis Cup, they also share the same manager.

So what to expect, then, from this colossal clash? It’s a leap into the unknown

Previous matches no indicator

Shapovalov will have a completely different match than he had in the second round against Benoit Paire.

CanadaIt was a match he managed to pull out 6-4 in the third set. But it was also a match the teenager could have lost in straight sets, had his French opponent been slightly less flaky. 

It had brilliant moments, and brutal moments (Paire double-faulted three times when serving for the second set). And while Paire is a powerful server, he’s not in Raonic’s league.

Raonic’s win over No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov was an impressive one considering his lack of recent match play, and an ongoing issue with his meniscus that has to be managed carefully. 

But Shapovalov is a lefty. And the patterns will be completely different.

Comparables

Even Shapovalov likely would admit that he’s not among the best returners in the game, although he’s improving week by week – especially on the backhand side.

He’ll have to return well to beat Raonic. But there’s very little data about how Shapovalov has fared against the big servers in the game. He just hasn’t faced many so far.

CanadaThe 19-year-old has never played John Isner, or Kevin Anderson. He defeated Ivo Karlovic in Delray Beach this year, and Sam Querrey in Miami.

He faced 6-foot-11 American Reilly Opelka in the qualifying at Queen’s Club a year ago, and defeated him in a third-set tiebreak.

But if Raonic serves at his top level – the way he served in the first set against Dimitrov, for example – he’ll control his own fate.

For Raonic, the relevant comparable is his record against lefthanders.

He hasn’t, though, played a lefty with a one-handed backhand since he lost to Feliciano Lopez in Cincinnati in 2015.

Surprisingly, Raonic has hardly played any lefties over the last year and a half. Raonic lost to Adrian Mannarino (a completely different type of lefty) in Canada last year. But his wrist was already giving him trouble and he didn’t play the rest of the summer after having a procedure done in early September.

A year ago in Madrid, Raonic defeated Gilles Muller. He also defeated Muller at the 2017 Australian Open, and he was 1-1 against Rafael Nadal in their two meetings during the opening tournaments in 2017.

Key patterns

Raonic’s kick serve in the ad court

Madrid is one of the most effective courts there is in terms of the kick serve. And Raonic has a good one. One of his go-to plays is to kick it out wide to his (righthanded) opponent’s backhand, and volley or hit a forehand into the open court.

But that serve will go to Shapovalov’s forehand. So that’s a game-changer.

Shapovalov’s backhand return

Canada

Raonic will pepper Shapovalov’s backhand with the serve, going wide in the deuce court and down the T on the ad side. He’s going to get his share of aces, to be sure. 

Will Shapovalov be able to get his racket on enough returns on that side to make Raonic play on his serve? That’ll be a key.

Shapovalov’s forehand to Raonic’s backhand

The basic crosscourt pattern takes on an extra dimension in this match, as Raonic will try to run around and hit as many forehands as he can in the ad-side corner. But as a lefty, Shapovalov will be able to get enough shape and angle with his forehand to make Raonic hit more backhands than he’d like to. 

It’s a pattern Shapovalov is going to try to maintain, while Raonic does his best to change the direction. The problem with that is that Raonic will have to hit his backhand down the line well to make that change. And that’s not a great shot for him.

You’d expect that whomever is serving is going to be able to dictate that pattern more often than not. 

Canada

Shapovalov’s backhand to Raonic’s forehand

That’s a pattern that favors Raonic. But not as much as it might against some players, as Shapovalov can be explosive on that side. Raonic has to be forceful enough with it to pull Shapovalov out wide, to neutralize the ability he has to hit backhand winners when he’s balanced, and has time.

To get the rallies on his side, Shapovalov will also have to hit his backhand down the line. It’s not a shot he’s known for; every highlight reel of his backhand features mostly crosscourts. 

But Shapovalov hit a fair few of them against Paire on Tuesday. And he hit them well. 

Shapovalov’s ability to pass

Scrolling through the list of Shapovalov’s opponents the last year, it’s hard to find one who regularly came to the net and tested his passing shots.

There’s no doubt Raonic will try to test it. He has been very aggressive moving forward in his matches this season. And against Dimitrov, he was hugging the baseline – jumping into the court, even – to return serve. 

For his part, Shapovalov wasn’t averse to using a “Raonic-type” pattern against Paire. He served out wide to Paire’s backhand on the ad side, and came in to either hit a forehand into the open court, or put away a volley.

Neither player is going to want long rallies. But if there’s one of the two more amenable to staying in them than the other, it’s probably Shapovalov. 

He is likely to have to hit a lot of passing shots Thursday, as Raonic tries to be the first to shorten the points.

Raonic against his countrymen

Until this year, there was only one fellow Canadian Raonic had to worry about running into at the ATP level.

That was Vasek Pospisil, a contemporary who was in the top-30 not that long ago. 

The two have met only twice on Tour, but both were big occasions. A semifinal in Montreal at their home-country Masters 1000 in 2013 was won by Raonic in a third-set tiebreak. The other was the final of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. the following year, also won by Raonic. 

But he did have a somewhat similar experience in the second round of Indian Wells in March, as he met Shapovalov’s good friend Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime, an up-and-coming 17-year-old and a good friend of Shapovalov’s had qualified for the tournament with two good wins, and defeated Pospisil in the first round. 

For his part, Raonic had played just four matches in 2018, and was clearly not match tough or match fit after an off-season spend nursing a knee injury. 

But the notion of losing to a kid he remembered as a 6-7 year-old running around the national training centre in Montreal clearly sparked something. Raonic defeated Auger-Aliassime 6-4, 6-4 and went on to reach the semis in Indian Wells and the quarterfinals in Miami (losing to Juan Martin del Potro both times).

As difficult as the last few years have been because of one injury after another, you know Raonic has enough pride in being the alpha dog that he will summon all the energy and motivation he has to keep the kid – who’s gaining fast – in his place.

Canada
The Indian Wells opener against young countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime was a tricky one, but Raonic played solidly. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Shapovalov hot on his heels

Shapovalov had an opportunity back in February to leapfrog Raonic in the rankings, had he won in Delray Beach. He couldn’t do it. And since then Raonic has resurrected his ranking back near the top 20.

The youngster will jump into the top 40 on Monday with what he’s done so far in Madrid.

If he can beat Raonic, he would move into the top 35 and all but guarantee himself a seeding at the French Open. (He could still do that in Rome next week).

A year ago, Shapovalov played the qualifying for the first time in Paris and lost in the first round. To arrive at Roland Garros a year later as a seed would be quite the feat.

Raonic injury ends rough Monte Carlo for Canada

Milos Raonic is not, generally, a player who cuts an overly sympathetic figure.

His big-serving game style and stoic demeanor bring him more respect than genuine emotional attachment, in most quarters.

But as the injuries keep coming, as the 27-year-old Canadian starts to gain a little momentum only to be stopped – once again – by a physical issue, he may well get more tennis fans starting to root for him.

Because it’s getting old.

And the prime years of his career are slipping by quickly.

Raonic was forced to withdraw before his third-round match against No. 2 seed Marin Cilic Friday in Monte Carlo because of a right knee injury.

The injury first became evident during his second-round victory over Marco Cecchinato of Italy, after he already pulled out of the doubles with what was listed as a right eye injury.

After Canadian wild card Félix Auger-Aliassime was eliminated in his first-round match by German veteran Mischa Zverev, Denis Shapovalov also went out in the first round to fellow 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas.

And now, Raonic.

Raonic went out for a hit Thursday morning, to see if the knee had responded well enough over night to give it a go. It hadn’t.

He’ll still move up one spot in the rankings to No. 21 – just five points out of a return to the top 20 – after missing the tournament a year ago and having no points to defend.

But knees are not quick-fix issues.

Here’s a recap of Raonic’s health struggles over the last three years.

2015: foot surgery, back injury

Raonic started the 2015 season by reaching the Brisbane final, the Australian Open quarterfinals.

He posted his first career win over Rafael Nadal on his way to the Indian Wells semis.

A pinched nerve in his foot – a longstanding, ongoing issue – forced Raonic to retire in Monte Carlo in his quarterfinal against Tomas Berdych. He tried to manage it and play Madrid. But surgery was the only option. And he couldn’t get back in time for the French Open.

Still in with a shot at one of the final spots at the ATP Tour finals, Raonic ended his season after Shanghai with a back issue that had been bothering him since the summer.

2016: Adductor kills momentum

Raonic began 2016 with some crowd-pleasing (yes, you read correctly) tennis as he defeated Roger Federer to win Brisbane.

He seemed on his way to the Australian Open final – until an adductor injury put the kibosh on his semifinal clash with Andy Murray.

The Canadian didn’t return until Indian Wells. But he picked up right where he left off with a final there, and a quarterfinal loss in Miami to Nick Kyrgios.

The fourth-round loss to Albert Ramos-Viñolas in Paris was a bit of a shocker. But overall, his clay-court campaign was a successful one.

And on the grass, he took it up a notch with a final at Queen’s Club and a final at Wimbledon – both losses to Andy Murray.

After opting to skip the Olympics, Raonic cramped in a second-round loss to Ryan Harrison at the US Open. The aftereffects of that caused him to miss a crucial Davis Cup tie a few weeks later.

Later in the year, he after getting through a quarterfinal with an ankle sprain, he pulled out before his semifinal in Beijing with what he called a “tear on the outside of the ankle.”

Raonic had to pull out of Beijing in 2016 with an injury, before his semifinal match.

He recovered and continued to play. But he pulled out before his semifinal at the Paris Masters with a leg injury.

Having already qualified for – and finally being able to play in – his first ATP Tour Finals, he wasn’t going to take any chances. So in the grand scheme of the Milos Raonic Medical File, these were tiny bumps.

Raonic reached the semis in London, lost 9-7 in a third-set tiebreak to Murray, and finished the season ranked a career-high No. 3.

Despite all the physical wobbles, it was the best season of his career.

2017: Adductor, wrist, calf, knee

The early part of Raonic’s season went well – until a high hamstring tear in February. He withdrew from the Delray final, missed Indian Wells, won a match then pulled out in Miami – and wasn’t seen again until May.

He returned and immediately began playing good tennis through the clay-court season. Every single player who defeated him was a top-quality opponent.

His Wimbledon? Okay – a quarterfinal loss to Roger Federer on the heels of a five-set win over Alexander Zverev in the previous round.

But his left wrist already was an issue. 

Raonic played the 500-level event in Washington, D.C. out of necessity, because of the parameters of the ranking system. But he lost his first match at his home-country event in Canada, to Adrian Mannarino. And that was it for the summer hard-court season. The Canadian had a procedure on that left wrist, and was out until October.

When he did return in Tokyo, he won his first-round match but tore his calf in the process. After one game, he retired in his second-round match.

That was it for the competitive season. But that wasn’t the end of the injuries.

As Raonic got back to training, he injured his right knee, and that cost him six weeks.

2018: A slow start – and the knee again

Raonic began 2018 short on both fitness and tennis. He took early losses to Alex de Minaur, Lukas Lacko and Steve Johnson to start the season.

He looked slow, and his serve wasn’t clicking. Raonic said that the nature of the knee injury meant that, unlike so many of his previous issues, he couldn’t at least serve while he was idle, or rehabbing.

But then, sparked by a confrontation with 10-years-younger countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime in his first match at Indian Wells, he came alive. He reached the semifinals there and the quarterfinals in Miami, losing to the on-fire Juan Martin del Potro on both occasions. 

With each week, he seemed to gain in both fitness and effectiveness.

And now, it’s the knee again – the same knee that cost him most of his off-season.

Leg jam, knee twist

Monte Carlo
(TennisTV.com)

The knee injury occurred in the middle of the first set of his match against Cecchinato.

The leg got stuck, the knee got twisted, and Raonic told ATP Tour physio Stéphane Vivier there was a “throbbing pain” in two areas.

When discussing a possible tape job, Raonic pointed out that the loss of rotation could have ancillary consequences, mentioning his previous hip issues. He took a tablet, but there wasn’t much to be done. 

He got through the match, a fact Cecchinato no doubt continues to lament. But he couldn’t go, 24 hours later, against Cilic.

The long-term injuries to so many of the top players in the game have been well-documented. But they’re all older than he is, with many more miles on the tennis odometer. This string of physical woes may be even more frustrating  on some levels.

Every year, it seems, Raonic has to battle and start all over again a few times.

And with the meat of the competitive season coming up over the next few months, it’s no time to be sidelined.

(Monte Carlo screenshots from TennisTV.com)

 

Federer vs. del Potro in Indian Wells final

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – With all the absences, with Novak Djokovic going out early, and with so many high seeds gone too soon, the BNP Paribas Open men’s singles final turned out all right after all.

No. 1 seed Roger Federer and No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro, two extremely popular players both on form this season, will vie for the trophy Sunday.

After that, it’s possible one of both of them will finally shave.

The two fuzzy finalists took different paths to the final match Saturday as Federer grinded out a win, and del Potro cruised on a way the conditions made things challenging.

Federer looked like a man who pressed the snooze button too many times until halfway through his match against 21-year-old Borna Coric of Croatia.

Most often, television and the tournaments themselves demand the world No. 1 get an spotlight match in the evening session. At worst, he tends to play late afternoon. So the 11 a.m. start may have felt as foreign to him as a middle-of-the-night wakeup call for a commuter flight.

The ATP Tour said that Federer had had just two 11 a.m. starts prior to this in his career: in 2006 here in the desert, and in 2004 at the tournament in Gstaad, Switzerland.

“Pasta at 9:15. It was yummy,” Federer quipped during is post-match interview for ESPN.

Tough conditions, tough match

Potro
  Raonic never found a groove against del Potro Saturday. And his lack of effectiveness on serve was a bit of a shocker.

The No. 1 looked out of sorts, perhaps a little stiff and sore, too (the cold, windy weather is not a friend to any 36-year-old professional athlete). And before he knew it he was down a set an a break to Coric, the 49th-ranked Croat who pulled off a third-set tiebreak win over No. 7 seed Kevin Anderson in the previous round.

But Federer woke up. He adjusted his targets to cut down the errors he was making in the wind. And Coric woke up, too – only in a different way. Faced with the prospect of upsetting the world No. 1, he flinched just enough, strayed from a successful game plan just enough, to allow Federer to pull out a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory.

Better lucky than good – but both help

Federer admitted he had some luck. He also didn’t decide, when he was in big trouble, that perhaps it just wasn’t going to be his day and ride out the inevitable.

“I think when you are confident and maybe also experienced and you have that combination, there’s no real need to panic, you know, because you can assess the situation quite easily,” Federer said. “You’re understanding that the opponent is playing better. It’s breezy. It’s hard to play offense. And when I was playing offense he was defending well. In the neutral rally balls, maybe I was missing a bit too many times.

“I think Borna played a great match. He was very steady. I can see why he caused a lot of problems to a lot of players, and he’s only going to improve from here,” Federer added. “Look, I should have lost the match. I was down twice a break in the third, I was down a break in the second. So, yeah, no doubt about it, this was definitely the toughest match, maybe the toughest match (this season).”

Despite appearances – at least early on – Federer said he was fine, physically. He said he was just caught off-guard by Coric’s game, the way he absorbed power so well and how he neutralized his offensive game combined with what Federer termed a recent “recalibration” of his game style to become a little more offensive-minded.

“He won because he’s Roger Federer”

Coric thought he had it, at some moments.

The Croat said the quick start was a combination of himself playing well, and Federer not playing well.

“But he stayed in the match and he pushed me. He basically, you know, he said to me, ‘Okay, you need to win the match. I’m not going to give the match to you.’ Many other players, especially because I was playing very good and I was not missing, many other players would just give the match away, you know, and he didn’t do it,” Coric said.

 He won also because he’s Roger Federer, and because he plays great. … He played, I think, tactically very, very good, very smart in those very important points, you know, which I was a little bit surprised.”

Undefeated in 2018

Potro

Federer is now 17-0 to start the season – the best start of his career. Del Potro is not far behind him at 16-3. And despite some back woes earlier in the tournament, the Argentine looked in perfect form Saturday and had little trouble with Raonic.

The Canadian’s lack of match play this season – and the Argentine’s abundance of it – contributed to del Potro having more confidence in being aggressive in the challenging conditions. Raonic never found his rhythm.

“I was sort of trying to find a groove. Especially when you sort of haven’t played for a while, you already are overthinking a lot of things. And then, with the wind, you’re not sure. You don’t have just that calm and ease about going through things and figuring things out on the fly,” said Raonic, whose ranking will rise from No. 38 to No. 25 with his week in the desert.

“It was surprising to see him serving not too hard, and I broke his serve very quick in both sets. That give me the control of the match,” del Potro said. ” I play a smart game, because the conditions were tough to play, but I did everything good. And I served well. I took all my chances. It was an easier match than what I expect before.”

25th meeting between Federer and del Potro

PotroFederer is 18-6 against del Potro during their careers.

But despite that rather lopsided head-to-head, they have had some fascinating tussles. Del Potro has defeated Federer at some of the tournaments that mean the most to him. He won back-to-back three-setters in the finals of the Basel event (Federer’s hometown tournament) in 2012 and 2013. And he has beaten Federer twice at the US Open, including last year.

“We both know what the other is trying to do, and we try to stop the other person from doing it. But it’s hard when me or him is in full flight. It’s basically an arm wrestle the whole time, and I think we enjoy that,” Federer said.

Raonic, the No. 32 seed, makes Indian Wells semis

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

seed

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.

The opener against young countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime was a tricky one, but Raonic played solidly. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

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

seedThe 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.