Those heady days in July, when he reached the Wimbledon final, seemed just the starting point for Milos Raonic’s ambitious goals for 2016.
Instead, it feels as though it was the last tournament in which the 25-year-old Canadian really played to the level of his abilities.
After being off the court for more than three weeks in the wake of a head-scratching defeat to American Ryan Harrison in the second round of the US Open (and after missing last weekend’s Davis Cup tie against Chile), Raonic returned to action Thursday night in St. Petersburg.
With a first-round bye, he had waited 4-5 days to play after arriving in Russia. The result was a tough defeat, 2-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4 to veteran Mikhail Youzhny.
It was a combination of some inspired, throwback play from the 34-year-old Russian when his back was to the wall, and an inexplicable collapse from Raonic.
The Canadian breezed through the first set with barely the loss of a point on his serve, breaking Youzhny twice.
He served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, then again at 6-5, but was broken on both occasions. He was up 5-1 and serving in the second-set tiebreak … before losing seven of the next eight points to force a decider.
Broken in the ninth game of the third set Raonic fought for nearly 10 minutes, squandering five break points that would have gotten him back on even terms. But Youzhny managed to serve it out.
Raonic had taken both previous meetings between the two fairly routinely, including a four-set victory in the third round of his breakthrough Grand Slam, the 2011 Australian Open.
But he hadn’t played him in several years and Youzhny, who seemed destined for retirement last season as he struggled to win matches, has had somewhat of a renaissance in 2016. He may be seeing the finish line clearly ahead of him and wants to go out playing his best. At his best, he’s a tricky challenge to negotiate.
The Russian had no answers for Raonic’s serve in the first set, and it all seemed quite routine until Raonic served for it the first time.
Suddenly, Youzhny was on fire. Raonic tried to force the issue at the net, only to be passed every possible way you can be. He focused on breaking down Youzhny’s stronger backhand, but got burned. He tried to go to the forehand, and got burned.
The more Youzhny pushed back, the more uncertain Raonic became. In that sense, it was a little reminiscent of the match against Harrison even though Raonic clearly had some extra physical challenges to deal with in that one. He buried too many groundstrokes into the net. He was snatching at attackable 140 km/hour second serves and not putting routine backhand returns into the court on big points.
Raonic seemed healthy enough upon observing from a distance – certainly the velocity on his serve was at peak level. But obviously there could well still be some physical issues he’s working through.
The footwork was uncertain, particularly when he backed himself into the corner on the ad side trying to hit his bread-and-butter inside-out forehand. Raonic simply wasn’t getting there in good time. Too often, the result was a loopy forehand with little on it that left the down-the-line backhand open for Youzhny, who made good on it time and time again.
More worryingly, he looked unclear on his tactics and far from confident in his ability to execute. On the other side, whatever Raonic tried, Youzhny increasingly seemed to know exactly what was coming.
When you look back on Raonic’s summer, which revolved entirely around posting a big result at the US Open, it’s a continuation of a bit of a pattern.
Raonic’s last four matches – from the semi-final against Andy Murray in Cincinnati, to the less-than-convincing first-round victory over Dustin Brown in New York, to the dramatic disaster that was the loss to Harrison, to this defeat – certainly seem to indicate something isn’t quite right. Practically speaking, he has played just six matches in the last two months, just two of them in the last month. That’s not a lot of tennis to keep things sharp.
At the same time, Raonic has had much longer breaks, and come back to the court on a mission – notably this year, when he missed significant time after the Australian Open, came back at Indian Wells in late March, and reached the final.
Raonic was the defending champion at the St. Petersburg Open, a tournament that on some levels replaces the now-defunct San Jose Open for him. It’s a small event, a 250-level tournament. But the conditions suit him perfectly and it’s a place he can reliably earn some ranking points.
But he will not defend; those 250 points will be replaced by 20 on his ranking chart. Raonic was pushing right up against the idle Kei Nishikori (at No. 5) and Rafael Nadal (No. 4) in the rankings entering the week; now, he has taken a step back although he still stands at No. 4 in the race to the ATP Tour Finals in London. He’s the highest-ranked player in that race not to have officially qualified.
After about 10 days to think about it as he’s currently not scheduled to play next week, Raonic’s next tournament will be the 500-level event in Beijing, China. He lost in the first round there a year ago against Viktor Troicki of Serbia, so there’s room for growth.