Much like his image on the huge billboard on the side of Aviva Centre in Toronto, Milos Raonic’s tennis continues to come into sharper focus.
On Wednesday night, he made his debut at the 2016 Rogers Cup with a dominant 6-3, 6-3 win over No. 70-ranked Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei.
Despite not having played a hard-court match since March and showing no signs of any hangover after losing the Wimbledon final to Andy Murray 17 days earlier, Raonic was in total control, except for having to save one break point in the second set of the 66-minute Centre Court match.
Sportsnet commentator Jimmy Arias noted about Raonic, “it’s the best I’ve seen him at Rogers Cup. He has always played with a little bit of nerves.”
The Raonic numbers were solid – 80 per cent of first serve points won and 71 per cent on second serve as well as three of seven of break point chances converted.
He frequently smiled on court, drawing in the large, partisan crowd and finished with a flourish belting a 132 mph second serve on match point that handcuffed the over-matched Lu.
“It was very positive,” Raonic summed up about his performance. “Obviously I didn’t expect to play as well as I did. I knew a lot of things were going to come down to me, how I dealt with – it was windy, humid. It wasn’t the easiest conditions. So I’m happy with how I managed that. I was efficient out there.”
Raonic also spoke about his approach to the event in his hometown and the counsel he received from coach Carlos Moya. “I spoke with my team I believe yesterday morning, and the first thing that came out from Carlos was a very different perspective,” he said. “My perspective until now was, ‘I don’t get to play here often. Every two years specifically in Toronto for this tournament. Once a year between here and Montreal and then obviously some Davis Cup ties at home. But my perspective was sort of I need to get the best out of myself.’
“He sort of put me in the thought process of, ‘you don’t get to do this that often. Make sure you enjoy it.’ I think once I used that nervous energy in the right outlet, it made it much better for me.”
Ever since John McEnroe was hired as a consulting coach before Wimbledon – to go along with Riccardo Piatti and Moya – the Raonic coaching situation has been a constant topic in his media conferences. On Wednesday night, he spoke more about the situation saying, “Carlos has been there with me now almost seven complete months – six-and-a-half months. He’s had a very positive effect on me.
“John has also had a positive effect over a shorter period of time. I think it’s the way you look at where I was. I feel like maybe it would have been the time for me to have done this a little bit earlier – last year when I got up to No. 4 in the world. But obviously I didn’t have that possibility considering all the injuries.
“So this was the right time to make that step, to get that out of myself. It also takes a personal maturity not only on what they can give you but also to take it in the right way and make the most of it and then not lose your identity at the same time.”
On Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m., Raonic will face qualifier Jared Donaldson of the U.S. a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 winner over Fabio Fognini on Wednesday. Fognini won the ATP 250 title in Umag, Coatia, on clay on Sunday and was probably fated not to go too far at Rogers Cup because of the difficult continental and surface transition.
The No. 145-ranked Donaldson, who has been somewhat forgotten among the young American prospects such as Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, Rielly Opelka, Stefan Koslov etc., has not been that impressive in 2016. But he did qualify and reach the second round in Washington last week before losing 6-0, 7-5 to Frenchman Benoit Paire.
As a point of reference, in March at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, then No. 43-ranked Vasek Pospisil beat the 19-year-old Donaldson 7-6(5), 6-7(2), 6-3.
It’s probably not too often that a young player will so vividly remember a specific shot from his very first Masters 1000 event and his opportunity to reach the third round at his hometown tournament. But Denis Shapovalov will likely not soon forget the forehand sitter he missed wide on Wednesday night when he led Grigor Dimitrov 3-1 in the first set, and seemed to be cruising at 30-love in his service game. But a careless swing and the ball flew wide and a 40-love lead evolved into a close game which eventually went to Dimitrov and allowed him to get back on serve.
Another break to 5-3 and the 25-year-old Bulgarian had all he needed to wrap up the first set.
A service break to 3-1 in the second set – in a game that Shapovalov led 40-15 – basically sewed up the victory for the heretofore struggling Dimitrov, currently ranked a sobering No. 40 after being as high as No. 8 in 2014.
“He’s an extremely talented player and he played great tennis,” Dimitrov said about Shapovalov, the 2016 Wimbledon boys champion. “I practiced with him just before he won Wimbledon and I thought ‘he’s going to be really good.’ What do you know? – three weeks later I’m playing him at such an event in front of a home crowd.”
Shapovalov played with a lot of verve and flair – his whippy forehand is a major weapon and his backhand can be even more spectacular when he strikes it just right.
His natural showmanship came to the fore in the eighth game of the second set when he scrambled to his backhand corner and improvised a tweener shot down-the-line that kept him in the point. When he wound up winning it with a forehand cross-court passing shot winner he celebrated with a big smile as the crowd erupted with a loud roar.
All and all it has been a terrific event for Shapovalov, beating the No. 19 player in the world, Nick Kyrgios, on Monday night, and showing that he can perform so well and so precociously on one of the biggest stages in the game.
“He’s the more experienced player and obviously he should be Top 10, he’s got the game,” Shapovalov said about Dimitrov.
Referring to that fateful forehand miss in the sixth game of the opening set, he said, “I had a chance. I forget what the score was but I had a pretty easy ball and then I missed it. Then right after that I got broken. So I’ve got to clean up those shots, not miss a couple of easy shots.
“Credit to him – he kind of figured out my game. He started playing very smart against me. Too bad I couldn’t serve better today. Otherwise I could have made it even closer.”
Looking ahead to National Bank Challenger tournaments he will play in Granby, Que., and Gatineau, Que., the next two weeks, he said, “for sure it’s been great, but I’m not gonna think about this result too much. Every week is not going to be like this. It’s going to be ups and downs, obviously.
“Next week is a new week. I’m going to go out and play every match the same way I do here and see how it goes. I’m not going to think of anything if I lose first round or anything.
“It could happen, it’s tennis, you never know. But obviously I’m going to try my best, fight every point and see where it goes.”
The 17-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., has made a major impression on the Canadian sports scene and there will be many along with him over the next few years anxiously and excitedly watching just exactly “where it goes.”
Vasek Pospisil had an extremely frustrating day at the office in his second-round outing on Wednesday against Gael Monfils, losing 7-6(6), 6-0.
The No. 101-ranked Pospisil played a solid first set but it all fell apart in all too familiar fashion in the tiebreak.
For someone who had lost nine of his last 10 matches entering the tournament, what happened in the tiebreak was devastating. Ahead 5-3, Pospisil served and had a forehand into the open court but missed it wide. Then holding a set point at 6-5, he totally miss-hit a forehand that flew high out of court.
It’s not hard to imagine what demons are in the head of a player who is struggling and he misses a shot so badly on such a big point. Two points later – a forehand passing shot winner by Monfils and a service return out of court by Pospisil – and the 29-year-old Frenchman had the tiebreak and the set.
There followed a more than 10-minute rain delay, aggravated by a decision made and then reversed to send the players off the court.
Monfils, seemingly relaxed, talked to umpire Carlos Bernardes during the stoppage. “This happened to me last week against Zverev in Washington and I had to come back and serve right away,” he joked to the Brazilian.
Monfils then saw the ATP physio arriving to treat him but, in the process of stretching his leg at the time, informed him that the issue was resolved and he didn’t need any help.
While Monfils went with the flow during the rain delay, Pospisil apparently festered and played a poor second set, which might have not been quite so bad had he converted three game points when he served trailing 3-0 in the second set.
“I didn’t do a good job after that first set to calm down,” Pospisil said. “I felt frustration, just kind of bottled up six months of frustration, kind of erupted in that second set. That was tough.”
Looking back at the first set, he said, “I was playing pretty well, and then, you know, (I) gave it away at the end of that first set. I had opportunities to win it. Then the second set was tough. It just kind of felt it was getting away from me very quickly.”
Pospisil will try to regroup for an opening-round doubles match on late Thursday afternoon as he and Daniel Nestor, seeded sixth, will face Pospisil’s former partner Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios, who was seen on site practicing with some vigour on Wednesday.
Earlier on Wednesday, Peter Polansky was beaten 7-6(5), 6-4 by qualifier Radek Stepanek.
The 37-year-old Czech has experienced quite a revival this year and had just enough gas in the tank to get over the finish line ahead of Polansky on a humid, hot day when the temperature reached as high as 34 degrees.
In the first set tiebreak, Stepanek led 4-1 with the help of some poor play by Polansky who then caught up to 4-all with a rash of unforced errors by Stepanek.
The Czech went ahead 6-4 with a neat angled drop shot winner and a service winner before Polansky climbed back to 6-5 down with a good forcing forehand on the first set point against him. On the second, Stepanek returned serve within centimetres of the baseline and Polansky’s reflexed reply was short and quickly dispatched on the forehand by Stepanek. First set – Stepanek.
The second was close but Polansky lost his serve in the final game when he made a couple of costly forehand errors.
Stepanek, who claimed he almost didn’t play because of a neck issue (although he later went out and won a doubles match with compatriot Tomas Berdych), looked exhausted near the end of the match.
“I felt like I had an opportunity there, so I’m disappointed,” Polansky said.
“The balls were pretty lively today and I think he prefers it like that because he can play more through the court and go for a bit more risk. He was getting tired at the end, I thought I had him and I told myself to just stay with him – keep holding serve easy. But I threw in too many unforced errors.”
About the way the wily Stepanek played, Polansky said, “I think he was a bit more steady from the baseline than I expected. I thought he’d come in a little more but 80 per cent of the time he was standing behind the baseline kind of just hanging around in the point – not giving me a whole lot to work with.”
Polansky, ranked No. 247, will play the $100,000 National Bank Challenger event in Granby, Que., next week while Stepanek faces a slightly bigger challenger – world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in a third-round night match on Thursday.
Steven Diez, who reached the second round with a victory over emerging Briton Kyle Edmund on Monday, also saw his tournament end on Wednesday when he lost 6-3, 7-6(5) to No. 12 seed Bernard Tomic.
The 25-year-old from Spain, via a childhood in Toronto, had his chances in the second set but Tomic came up with the timely shots – often big serves.
“I leave happy,” the No. 192-ranked Diez said after the first Rogers Cup main draw of his career. “I’ve got a few Challengers now and I’m going to focus as if every tournament is this tournament and try and do my best.”
Diez was still thinking about the first point of the second-set tiebreak after the match – a poorly played forehand drop shot that barely made it to the net. “Tiebreak first point, I didn’t hit many drop shots but I wanted to change it around because he was moving okay at the back and reading my game well,” Diez explained. “I hit a good serve, I saw it and I went for it. I normally always get those balls in. I even looked at my coach and said ‘I always hit those drop shots well but it didn’t even go over the net. After that I came back to 3-all (from 0-3). But I think he played better – I missed a (backhand) volley on the match point and another good volley as well.”
Tomic hit two big serves in the last few points and that made matters easier for the 23-year-old Aussie.
“I’m happy anyway,” Diez said. “I’ll try and come back next year and do better.”
Genie Bouchard is delighting the crowds at STADE IGA as she continues her fine play at Coupe Rogers in Montreal. After beating No. 28-ranked Lucie Safarova in a thriller on Tuesday evening, she came back on Wednesday and outclassed No. 10-ranked Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 6-0. The complete opposite of their third-round match at Wimbledon which the 27-year-old Slovak won 6-4, 6-3, this time it was Bouchard who bossed the rallies and Cibulkova who was more prone to making the unforced error.
The match lasted only an hour and 13 minutes so the 22-year-old Montrealer, bothered by a gastro issue on Tuesday, should be fine heading into her third-round against Kristina Kucova on Thursday night. The 26-year-old Slovak is a qualifier ranked No. 121.
If she beats Kucova, Bouchard would play the winner of lucky loser Vavara Lepchenko of the U.S., ranked No. 50, and No. 14 Johanna Konta of Britain, whom she beat in the second round of Wimbledon last month, to secure a semifinal spot. In that potential semifinal she might play either fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska or No. 6 Venus Williams.
While all the talk has been about Milos being the first Canadian man to win the Rogers Cup/Canadian Championships since Bob Bedard in 1958, maybe now is the time to think about the chances of Bouchard being the first woman since Faye Urban of Toronto in 1969 to be champion at the nation’s major tournament.
You have to wonder about Rogers Cup security, which has been generally pretty strict, when a guy wearing this hat is allowed into Aviva Centre!