Milos Raonic’s Australian Open run ends with loss to fellow young gun Grigor Dimitrov

MELBOURNE – It was the first Grand Slam chapter of a generation-next rivalry that could light up the men’s tennis landscape over the decade to come.

And it was riveting enough that during the suspenseful and decisive fourth-set tiebreaker between Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov and Canada’s Milos Raonic, regular business in the men’s locker room at the Australian Open came to a standstill as everyone stopped to watch.

The great Roger Federer even delayed a scheduled interview with ESPN to see the dénouement, which had the No. 22 seed Dimitrov pull off an on-paper upset of the No. 11 seed Raonic, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (12-10 in that terrific tiebreaker) to send the Canadian out of the tournament in the third round.

Margaret Court Arena, which has seen long lineups through the first first week in no small part because of the amount of shade offered during the unbearable four-day heat wave,

was extra-full during a match that was slow to gather momentum at first.

When you combine the cooler weather, the earlier start before the legal beverages fully kicked in, the very stoic Raonic and an unusually composed Dimitrov, the sparks weren’t exactly flying.

The first true sign of emotion came from Dimitrov, after he won the third set. He erupted with a scream and multiple fist pumps – as though he’d been saving up all that extra energy to keep his typically demonstrative personality under control.

After that, the match was a cracker.

Raonic saved four match points and squandered two opportunities to take it to a fifth set in that fourth-set tiebreaker, before he netted one more forehand to send Dimitrov into the second week of a major for the first time in his young career.

“I think I played the situations right. The two sets I was a little bit sloppy to allow myself to get down love‑40 (and get his serve broken). Other than that, I don't think I would really take too much back. I was doing the right things. I came in a bunch,” said Raonic, who was smiling and gracious when it was over, ready with an embrace for a player he has known for a decade.

“I don't think I executed well, but I think I had the right idea on what I needed to do,” he added.

It was hardly a career-defining match for either player at this stage. But for the loser, it was a golden opportunity lost. Dimitrov will play a middling Spaniard named Roberto Bautista-Agut for the opportunity to get into his first career Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Bautista-Agut took out Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro on that late Thursday night, after the extreme heat policy and some untimely rain pushed some matches late into the night.

Six months younger than Raonic, Dimitrov has always been touted along with him as one of those can’t-miss players who will take over the top of the game, once the current great generation (which shows no sign of imminent departure) moves on.

But until now, he’s mainly been known for his stylistic similarities to Federer and, more recently, for his rather famous girlfriend. You might have heard of her. Maria Sharapova. She plays a little tennis.

Except for the aces totals, the numbers on the match were absolutely all in Dimitrov’s

favour, and by a wide margin.

The winners were the same for both (49 for Dimitrov, 50 for Raonic). But the official stats had Dimitrov making just 13 unforced errors to Raonic’s 39, two-thirds of which came on misfired forehands.

That’s a crazy number, and that sort of consistency will inflate the errors total on the other side. Because when your opponent isn’t missing, and he moves a lot better than you do, and he’s guessing right on your monster serve a lot, you have to go for more.

Dimitrov went 12-for-15 at the net; Raonic, whose game plan had always been to move forward aggressively, didn’t execute well once he got there. He was just 22-of-53 and many of those he missed, to put it bluntly, weren’t pretty.

It wasn’t that Dimitrov passed incredibly well – although his spectacular backhand down-the-line pass at 6-6 in the tiebreaker, after perhaps the longest rally of the match, will be remembered.

There were some nifty backhand flicks. But many of the passes came after Raonic failed to execute the first volley he intended after hitting approach shots, thus making the pass far more routine.

The overwhelming majority of Raonic’s approaches went to Dimitrov’s backhand, which he said was the right play.

“I just wish I was a little bit more efficient. A lot of times I did have the volley I wanted, and I don't think I did well in that situation. My numbers weren't great when I was at the net,” he said. “It wasn't how I was coming in; it was my execution with the volley.”

Raonic did a lot better with the volleys on the straight-up serve and volley play. Most often he got something high on the forehand that he easily put away.

In the end, the serve kept him in it once he got it back on track after a lull in the middle of the match, caused in part by the pressure Dimitrov was applying by putting his racquet on it. Even though there was little between the two in the end – Dimitrov was 2-of-4 on break chances, Raonic 1-of-3 – the bigger server had consistently more trouble holding his serve.

The Canadian didn’t make Dimitrov pay on his second serve, an average 12 km/hour slower than that of Raonic. He won 75 per cent of his second-serve points. Even if you grant that Raonic’s serve return is one of his weaknesses, that’s big.

“It's not easy playing against Milos. You never know what's going to come on the other side. He's definitely one of the greatest servers out there. It's always a bit unpredictable,” said Dimitrov, who dispatched Raonic in straight sets when they last met, at an Australian Open warmup tournament in Brisbane a year ago where conditions are a lot faster. “But on my side, what I think I did good was that I (hung) really tough in the match. I didn't let him take control of the rallies. You know, when I had chance to step in, I did,” he added.

This was the third time the two have played at the ATP Tour level. Raonic won their first meeting,on an indoor court in Stockholm, Sweden in 2011.

“I'm sure that's not going to be our last match. I'm sure we will have many more battles. He's a great guy, first of all. I know him quite some time. We played juniors together.” Dimitrov said.

“You go out there and you put it all out. I can't be mad at the guy for beating me or anything,” Raonic said. “I've seen him around since juniors. I know him and I respect him.”