When last year’s draw for the BNP Paribas Open was released, it seemed nearly sure that we would be watching a surging Milos Raonic battle a not so surging Roger Federer in the fourth round. Ryan Harrison denied us that viewing pleasure, but provided his own, by beating Raonic in a very tight third round match, and proceeding to challenge Federer in the fourth round. When the draw came out this year, once again, it seemed almost certain we would see the first match between these two players, one thought to be the greatest of all time and one clearly on his way to greatness.
Probably the most anticipated match of the early rounds, it didn’t disappoint, or should I say, Milos Raonic didn’t disappoint. It’s so easy for a young player like Raonic, someone who likely grew up watching Roger Federer play, to go out there nervous, not truly believing he can win a match like this. When asked about playing someone so well respected, he said, “There is a lot of people going out against a player like Federer that are tight or just have a big respect for him and sort of get caught up in that.” Milos did not allow himself to get caught up in the hype. He may not have won this one, but he clearly believed he could.
Taking out a player of Federer’s caliber is like a right of passage, welcoming young players to the big league. Of course Milos Raonic has already won three ATP titles and cracked the Top 25. Some already count him as part of the big league, but he has yet to beat a Top 5 player. Granted, he has never played Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray. Tuesday night may have been a shot at the big time, but he’ll have plenty more. At this point he has proven he deserves his spot in the rankings, but he has real Top 10 potential, and maybe more. To get there, he will need to win matches like this, at least some of the time.
I first saw Raonic in Memphis last year, fresh off his first ATP title in San Jose, and a relatively unknown name in the tennis world. There was a lot of buzz surrounding the young Canadian, but everyone was wondering whether his San Jose title was a flash in the pan performance, or whether he was the real deal, able to compete with the top players. That week, it turned out to be the later. He plowed his way through the Memphis draw and into the final, where he lost to Andy Roddick. There were a few things that struck me about Raonic in person. First was Raonic’s stature. Much like Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic seemingly tries to make himself look smaller, but it doesn’t work. At 6’5”, with powerful legs, and one of the biggest serves in today’s game, it would be hard to miss this gentle giant. Second, I was shocked how composed he was for just being 20 years old, both on court and off. He controls his emotions incredibly well, something a lot of young players struggle with. Off court, he handled the press with the ease of someone who had been doing this for years.
I was no less impressed last evening. Raonic did not cave under the pressure of serving for the first set. He did not give up when he when down a double break in the second set and fought hard until the end of the third. Federer had mostly complementary things to say about Raonic’s game, even going as far as to say that his serve is, “probably gonna be top 10 of all time at one point.” However, he did not that Raonic still has a ways to go before he enters that realm.
Perhaps not his best match of the season, Federer did one of the things he does best. He won a match he was supposed to win. Even after dropping the first set, he seemed to have no doubts. This seems like such a simple concept, but so many players can easily fall victim to the upset. Add in that Federer has been feeling a little under the weather and he’s “still not 100%” and the loss of the first set tie breaker and he was ripe for the upset.
That being said, Federer will face another first time opponent today in Thomaz Bellucci, who received a walkover when Nikolay Davydenko was forced to withdraw with the Indian Wells virus that’s been going around. Bellucci is generally known as a claycourter, but Federer is ready for whatever challenges the match may bring. Asked about the matchup, Federer said he is “looking forward to that kind of a challenge. It’s different. I hope to feel better again tomorrow so I will be able to last through long rallies. I haven’t seen him play at all actually lately, but I know he’s chosen to play more of a hard court schedule the last year or so instead of just playing on clay when he could.” Kind words from Federer for his next opponent, but it’s unlikely Bellucci will be able to push the 16 time Grand Slam champion the way that Milos Raonic did.