A relentless Milos Raonic upsets No. 4 Stan Wawrinka, will meet Gaël Monfils in the Australian Open quarter-finals

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  • Milos Raonic
    Milos Raonic
    Canadian tennis player
  • Stan Wawrinka
    Stan Wawrinka
    Swiss tennis player

MELBOURNE, Australia – The new-look, diversified Milos Raonic who has strolled undefeated through this early tennis season has seemed too good to be true.

So, too, did the Raonic who went up two sets to none on Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland Monday with a relentless serve-and-volley attack that had the world’s No. 4 player reeling.

Three hours and 45 minutes after it began, Wawrinka walked off shaking his head as Raonic pulled off a 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-3 win that puts him into the Australian Open quarterfinals.

Raonic will face mercurial No. 23 seed Gaël Monfils of France Wednesday for the opportunity to reach his second career Grand Slam semi-final.

Raonic kept his cool for most of the match - until that ultimate break, and after the victory. (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)
Raonic kept his cool for most of the match - until that ultimate break, and after the victory. (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

If reality appeared to set in when Wawrinka won the third and fourth sets, the true measure of the big step the Canadian is dedicated to taking in 2016 showed in the fifth, when he finally broke Wawrinka and served out the match at love. He stuck to his aggressive tactics, asked Wawrinka the right questions and the 30-year-old Swiss, who caught a virus just before the start of the tournament and admitted it had been a “difficult 10 days”, couldn’t come up with enough answers.

Raonic's record in Grand Slam tournaments after winning the first two sets was 36-0 going in. But Wawrinka had pulled off six comebacks in his career from a two-set deficit, and certainly most of Raonic's victories at majors have not come against the calibre of opponent he faced Monday.

“I'm very happy with the way I played, the way I competed, the way I turned things around after sort of having the momentum against me going into the fifth,” Raonic said.

“I felt like, you know, I was doing well up there (at the net). Especially some points I was more efficient than others. Maybe at one point in the third and fourth sets, I was coming in too much, so I was a little bit predictable,” he added. “I was volleying the first volley really well. I was finishing the points. I was putting pressure on him. I was giving him a situation maybe that he wasn't too comfortable in.”

The final tally on the net approaches was 54-for-83, a success rate of 65 per cent. Raonic's sense was that it was higher; by his team’s count, it certainly was. He wondered if the official statistics included approach shots that didn’t require a volley, or serve-and-volley plays where the return wasn’t put into play.

It was clear the plan was hatched right from the match preparation stage and Raonic was keenly interested in quantifying this first try at it, a first attempt that came on a huge stage against a huge player.

Wawrinka characterized the 25-year-old Canadian as a player who has been in the top five, a very good player who was going to be tough under any circumstances even if Wawrinka came into this encounter with a 4-0 head-to-head record.

“When you play a fourth round against a player like Raonic, you have to be in top shape to be able to push him to the maximum and have a chance to beat him. Today it was more difficult than I expected,” he said. “Even before the match I felt that I was a longshot.”

Raonic's girlfriend Danielle Knudsen (centre), her cute friend (left) and Raonic's mother Vesna were all pretty happy at the turn of events. (REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)
Raonic's girlfriend Danielle Knudsen (centre), her cute friend (left) and Raonic's mother Vesna were all pretty happy at the turn of events. (REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Oddly enough, he said he didn’t think the all-out Raonic net aggression was anything out of the ordinary, anything unexpected. “I expected him to try that tactic; I saw him play since the beginning of the tournament,” Wawrinka said, in French. “You can see he’s progressing but with him, it’s about confidence. He’s volleying better.”

Wawrinka felt the velocity on Raonic’s serve dropped in the third and fourth sets, allowing him back in.

“After the second set, I relaxed a bit from the baseline, hit a little harder,” said Wawrinka, who came in to the net 31 times himself. “He let me come back into the match even if I was fighting, even if I was searching for solutions the entire time. He left me a little hole. But in the fifth set, it’s more than just about tennis.”

Stan Wawrinka huffed and puffed but he was no match for fellow seed Milos Raonic in the last 16 at Melbourne Park.
Stan Wawrinka huffed and puffed but he was no match for fellow seed Milos Raonic in the last 16 at Melbourne Park.

The rewards of the additional weapons Raonic worked during the offseason to add to his game have come quickly; Raonic won his first official tournament of 2016 in Brisbane, defeating Roger Federer in the final. He is now 4-0 at the Australian Open with a second first-time victory over a multiple Grand Slam champion under his belt already this season.

The external focus, of course, has already turned towards new coaching consultant Carlos Moyá, even though he has only been officially on the job, in person and face-to-face, for a week.

The offseason work on Raonic, version 2.0, began long before that.

“I think Carlos has been taking the tools that me and (coach Riccardo Piatti) worked on in the winter, and he is sort of telling me, ‘You're doing well up there; keep getting yourself up there,’ ” Raonic said. “He's sort of organizing my strengths, my weapons, and how to use them better.”

The work on the volley hasn’t been as much on the stroke technique as on the legs as the Canadian is pushing forward more than before, not stopping short and, as he put it, trying to “arm” the volley.
He’s also spending a lot more time up in that part of the court.

The repeated forays forward took their toll over the five-set match. Never before has Raonic sustained the forward attack for so long; his back took the brunt of all the bending down from his high centre of gravity on all the low volleys Wawrinka made him play – especially in the third and fourth sets.

But that’s an adjustment he can deal with.

“I said from the start of the year that I’m in much better shape than I’ve ever been. I spent time doing those drills – maybe not to the extent of as many times I came in today, but the time’s been put in there,” Raonic said. “Today being the first time I’ve done it so much, I’m very happy with the way my body feels.”

 

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