On the world No3’s first visit to the beautiful city on Australia’s golden east coast, he reached the final of its prestigious tournament, and that proved to be a springboard to one of Federer’s best ever seasons, a 73-12 surge that took him from No8 to within striking distance of No1 by November.
Last year, Federer won the title, winning is 1,000th match in the process, and went on to win five more titles, and reach the final of two Grand Slams, two Masters and the World Tour Finals.
This year, the outlook began under something of cloud: Yes, it rained in Brisbane, but the women’s Premier tournament also lost its top three seeds with injury before they had completed a match, and then came rumours that the top seed in the men’s draw, Federer, was ill. But play he did, improving with each round on his way to another final, now with a 10-1 record in the Pat Rafter Arena.
It all happened, though, with a peculiar sense of déjà vu. Federer faced last year’s semi-finalist, Grigor Dimitrov, in the quarters and now he took on the man who pressed him to three tough sets in last year’s final, Milos Raonic.
And in the team boxes was the familiar face of Ivan Ljubicic, last year supporting Raonic, but this year with Federer. For after the departure of Stefan Edberg from Federer’s team at the end of 2015, Ljubicic moved in, leaving Raonic to tie up with Carlos Moya at the upcoming Australian Open.
One thing was certain, though: Federer needed to start strongly, because the huge Canadian has one of the biggest serves in the game, backed up by a devastating forehand. And though Federer had only lost to Raonic once, many of their matches were tight affairs, and almost all included tie-breaks.
The Canadian had, indeed, reached a career-high No4 last year, but slipped to a current 14 after a succession of injuries to foot and back. Now he was fit again, and moving around the court with more speed and better footwork than ever.
Those improvements also allowed him to develop his aggressive game and to move forward and take advantage of his biggest weapon. They also gave him a better play on Federer’s second serve which, in their second title match here, was offered up too often: both the Swiss man’s opening games went to 30.
Tactically, Raonic is a smart customer, too, so not only was he hitting his serve at 140mph but he served into the body as often as to the lines. He came to the net twice to hold for 2-2 and then pounded a devastating backhand winner off Federer’s first serve in the next game.
With his first-serve rate at below 50 percent, the Swiss found himself facing two break points in fifth game, and although he survived, he came under pressure again in the ninth game. He fended off one break point, but a double fault offered up another, drawing a huge roar of anger, and he then netted a forehand for the decisive break. Raonic served it out, 6-4.
Immediately, though, Federer felt the full power of the Raonic returns to go 30-30. The Swiss roared himself on to a hold, but he was not comfortable.
If Raonic was not already confident with how he was controlling the match, he was surely boosted by an unhappy Federer dropping his racket to the court and standing, hands on hips, in disgust at another netted return. Another missed backhand drew a similar reaction, but the Swiss held for 2-1.
Then out of the blue, Raonic took an break from court for a medical time out. It was not clear where the problem lay, though on his return, he double faulted three times to offer up his only break point in the match. And in truth, it was Federer who let the chance slip, twice making backhand errors—though a timely 145 ace also helped the Canadian cause.
After an easy hold apiece, it was 3-3, but again it would be a coughing Federer who conceded a break point with a wayward forehand and a wry smile. In contrast, an energetic Raonic pummelled a forehand winner to take the lead, 4-3, and held to love with an ace.
Federer had a glimmer of a chance at 4-5, 15-30, with a couple of aggressive plays off Raonic’s second serve, but yet again fluffed a backhand. He laughed in disbelief, and could do nothing to stem Raonic’s big serve to close out the victory, 6-4, in an hour and a half.
It was not, it must be said, the highest quality final, as the stats confirmed: both men made more errors than winners, both were below 60 percent on first serve. The biggest difference was at the front of the court: Raonic’s determination to evolve an increasingly aggressive game took him to the net 25 times, where he won 20 points—and that put the ultra-aggressive game of Federer into the shade, just 7/10.
So Raonic reaped his just reward, and what is worrying for the rest of the field, with the Australian Open around the corner, is that he has more to give. He served only six aces here—low by his standards—and that will provide an even stronger base for his improving game.
Ljubicic may now be in Federer’s box, but it looks as though the Croat’s influence on Raonic’s tactics and technique played a significant part in claiming his eighth title, and could take his former charge to many more trophies in 2016.
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