MELBOURNE, Australia – Raonic the Stoic, the “servebot”, the phlegmatic giant, was in no state of mind to have a conversation with his support team or anyone else, as he dutifully came in for his post-match press conference Friday night at the Australian Open.
Although the 25-year-old from Thornhill, Ont. did his best to put up a good front, Raonic was as emotional as anyone had ever seen him. “Probably the most heartbroken I felt on court, but that's what it is,” he said after his 4-6, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-2 loss to No. 2 seed Andy Murray in the men's singles semi-final.
Raonic’s voice was cracking – more than usual. Dressed in a simple T-shirt rather than his usual perfectly coordinated warmup jacket, he seemed smaller, somehow – diminished, devastated.
Even his hair, the masterpiece that has spawned Twitter accounts and coiffure jokes galore, was a little out of place and drooping. That’s big.
A man who always looks his questioner in the eye, Raonic looked down disconsolately between responses, the battle with his composure evident as his eyes would well up once more. It wasn’t hard to figure out that as forlorn as he looked, he likely felt 10 times worse inside.
It was Raonic’s second career Grand Slam semi-final, with a quick straight-sets loss to Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2014 being his debut. He had vowed to do better this time.
Until his body failed him, he did just that. He was poised to make more Canadian tennis history.
The problem was with his right adductor; Raonic said he had struggled with it a little in his first tournament in Brisbane, where he defeated Federer to win the title, but it had not been an issue so far in Melbourne.
Not an issue – until he needed just one more quality set to put away world No. 2 Murray and make a date with all-world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Sunday night’s final.
“I’m in a much better state where I was 18 months ago when I was in my first semifinal of a Grand Slam. So I think I was giving myself chances and I was fighting hard. I was doing things right,” he said. “It was just sort of how the story played out after.”
In retrospect, the bold, spectacular way Raonic played the third-set tiebreak might have been borne of a sense of desperation. Certainly if he was already feeling the injury, that would make sense.
Because it was impressive indeed. It included two horrendously difficult bounced smashes from near the baseline, a shot players rarely practice and one that is very hard to control. He went for them, and he made them. He also crushed a backhand winner down the line that had Murray shaking his head and looking at his supporters as if to ask, “When did he get THAT shot?”
But early in the fourth set, Raonic called for a medical timeout and needed to go off court for treatment. That indicated the injury was in a sensitive area, one that couldn’t be worked on inside Rod Laver Arena without giving the crowd a show.
Already, the velocity on his serve had diminished; he wasn’t using his legs, such a vital part of his delivery. And although Raonic wasn’t grunting in the traditional sense, the effort it took to move to every ball was audible.
"You know, obviously if the injury affected him significantly at the end, then that's tough, especially at this stage of an event. As the player, it's obviously very tough when that happens," Murray said. "I've been in that position myself many times before, as well. It's not easy."
Still, Raonic had his chances. He had a break point at 3-4 on Murray’s serve to level things. And he had two chances to level it at 5-5 – until Murray got bold himself, upping the ante on his rather pedestrian second serve in a necessary move, as Raonic had begun returning serve a lot better than he had earlier in the match. Murray was rewarded.
When Raonic’s serve was broken to open the fifth, he battered his trusty Wilson racquet on the court in disgust. More than just the break, it came from the frustration of knowing that the great opportunity he had worked so hard during the off-season to earn was basically gone.
“I don't think that's like myself to do that, but sometimes it's a little bit too much to keep in,” he said.
Still, he didn’t give up. Down 0-4 in the final set and in danger of suffering the ignominy of a bagel, he found some hidden reserves and cranked serves that hit 221, 222 and 225 km/hour. That was enough to get on the board, at least. But the only thing he could salvage at that point was his pride.
The crowd appreciated it, though. They could see he was in distress, and they could tell he was still giving everything he still had.
Raonic said he was in no mood to ask the medical staff to determine the seriousness of the injury and if he could make it worse by carrying on. “I couldn't have cared less what could have happened on the court. I was in my second semifinal. … Regardless of what situation I was in, I was going to play and try to do whatever I could,” he said.
He wasn’t in any more of a mood to deal with it in the immediate aftermath. “I have not spoken to anybody. Honestly, I'm not in the mental state where I would be seeing a doctor to get a recommendation today. Maybe that happens tomorrow or whenever I feel like I'm ready to face that situation,” he said. “When that comes, I'll deal with it accordingly.”
In the end, Raonic was the revelation of an Australian Open that lacked some drama on the tennis side, especially on the men’s side, with the possible exception of Rafael Nadal’s shocking early exit.
The Canadian’s tennis has taken a big leap forward in the first two weeks of the season. And as disappointed as he was Friday night, Raonic realized that.
“No, trust me, if this (loss) didn't happen 20 minutes ago, there's a lot more positive to take from the situation than there is negative – by magnitudes,” he said.