He may be the Olympic gold medallist and the No3 seed here in New York, and all of that has undoubtedly given him more confidence and made him a stronger favourite for his first Slam than ever before.
But across the net from him in the showcase match of the Labor Day schedule at this year’s US Open was a man aged just 21 who, before this year, had played only one match in the main draw at Flushing Meadows—indeed had played little more than 100 main tour matches. Yet Milos Raonic simply bristled with a confidence of a peculiarly quiet and matter-of-fact kind.
He acknowledged that, in Murray, he faced one of the best returners in the game, but he was pragmatic, almost to the point of arrogance, about it: “If I serve well, if I hit the lines, it’s tough to get my serve back.
“It’s really him adjusting more to me than myself to him. If I’m serving well, I’m hitting my spots, it’s about making him feel as uncomfortable as possible.”
And make no mistake, he is right to be confident in his serve: When it hits the mark, it is invariably impossible to return. The Raonic ace count, after just three matches at Flushing, already exceeded the entire tournament total in three of the last five years: 89, and topped a 143 mph.
But Raonic was not done there: “I can do stuff from the baseline. I can do stuff from the net. I can do quite a few different things – In the end, my job is to go out there and make my opponents adjust to me. I feel like I have the ability to be more dangerous than most players when I have the ball on my racquet, especially out of my hand on a serve. That just puts a lot of pressure on my opponents.”
The fast-improving Canadian has certainly started to back up such bold self-belief. Two years ago, he was ranked at 249, a year later 29 and is now seeded 15—and he was halted by hip surgery last summer, missing the US Open in the process.
So from any angle, the message was clear. Murray would have both a physical and psychological challenge on his hands, but at least he did not have to play in the heat of the day with the courts at their fastest. On the contrary, the air was so heavy that the match was moved forward to avoid a promised rain-storm.
As it turned out, the Murray game was well up to test, despite wind, some drizzle and precious little buzz from a less-than-full Arthur Ashe arena. And the ticket-holders who did not take up their option missed an education in craft and tactic and clear-headed focus from the Scot.
By the third game, Raonic had found serves close of 138mph and was moving confidently to the net, but by the fourth, and again the fifth, Murray was throwing in some deft drop shots to test the Canadian who had taken up residence metres behind the baseline to receive serve.
Come the seventh, Murray was already picking the Raonic delivery and returning it with spin and, should the rally extend beyond a shot or two, he placed the ball at the feet of the 6ft 5in Canadian.
The Raonic height and his disproportionately long legs provide his serving powerhouse but are a liability against the low, spinning ball dropped at his feet. Such a shot from Murray earned a first break point, fended off nicely with an angled forehand from Raonic. Murray produced three more in the strategically perfect ninth game, and it was a drop shot that converted the last of them. Murray served out the set with ease, having made just two unforced errors.
Raonic continued to do what he does best. His serve percentage never dropped below 65 percent and he attacked the net with some success, but Murray was beginning to neutralise his big weapons. If his return of serve did not put Raonic on the back foot, then a drop volley or a passing shot exposed the Canadian’s inferior movement.
An early point in Murray’s first service game laid the Raonic weakness bare as the Scot sprinted to the net, raced back to retrieve a lob from behind the baseline and hit a reverse winner down the line. It was both bold and skilful, but above all, wonderfully athletic.
That same backhand penetrated Raonic’s court more and more often, and a magical sequence of rallies form Murray—showcasing a sliced volley, a lob and a high backhand smash—brought up two break points in the sixth game. The big man from Canada displayed some great touch of his own with a delicate drop volley and then hit a winning serve, but it was not enough. Murray converted a third chance to lead 4-2.
Raonic fended off two more break point with, of course, a big serve and a follow-up volley winner but Murray served out to love, 6-4.
The match took on an air of inevitability. In the third set, Murray lost just three points out of 17 on his first serve, deployed by turn the drop shot and the backhand down the line, and broke twice. He finished with the easy assurance of a job well done, in a love service game, 6-2.
Raonic had not managed a single break point in the match and had put “only” 14 aces past Murray. In the context of the Canadian’s previous matches, that is some achievement by the No3 seed.
But more impressive was the variety of Murray’s shot-making, the smartness of his tactics and the speed and flexibility of his movement. This was, in short, his best performance since the one that took Olympic gold in London. And Raonic was as disarmingly forthright about Murray’s tennis as he had been about his own before the match: “Not too much I could do. He just did a lot of things too good today.”
Murray will face Marin Cilic for a place in the semis for the second straight year. He has mastered the Croat in all seven of their matches but one—their single meeting on Arthur Ashe in 2009.
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