Milos Raonic reaches Rome Masters semifinal, sets sights on No. 8 seed for French Open

The Eh Game

There was quite a bit riding on the outcome of Friday's match in Rome for both Canadian Milos Raonic and Frenchman Jérémy Chardy.

The two, playing in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open, weren't only playing for the opportunity to get to the semifinals of a big Masters 1000 tournament. They also were playing with one eye on the French Open, which begins in 10 days in Paris.

If Chardy, who defeated Roger Federer in the second round, won, he would guarantee himself a spot among the top 32 in Paris, thus earning a seed and avoiding the possibility of facing the likes of Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic before at least the third round.

For a Frenchman, at the French Open, that's a huge thing.

A Raonic victory would all but nail down the No. 8 seed – a significant spot, because it would mean the Canadian could avoid the top players in the world until the French Open quarterfinals.

Raonic was the one who seized the opportunity, overcoming a slight loss of form in the second set to defeat Chardy 6-3, 5-7, 6-2 and reach his first Masters 1000 semifinal on clay.

"I'm happy with a lot of things I did, especially getting myself back on track and playing a good third set. That was very important for me, being able to finish the way I did," Raonic said during an on-court interview.

There now is only one way Raonic can relinquish a claim to that No. 8 seed (he would be ranked No. 9, but the injury absence of No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina would bump him up one spot in the seedings).

Another of the up-and-coming players of Raonic's generation, the Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, would have win the Rome title. Dimitrov advanced to the semifinals after opponent Tommy Haas, 36, retired after the first set with a recurring shoulder issue. But Dimitrov would have to upset either Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray in Saturday's semifinal just to get to the final – let alone win it all.

Raonic also would have to lose his semifinal match.

The former is unlikely, if possible. The latter is more likely, but not impossible. But both would have to happen.

First things first, though; Raonic had to win against Chardy, a big server and a talented shotmaker whose biggest weakness might be the inability to keep up that level through an entire match, an entire week.

Raonic's serve took care of most of the job in the first set. He faced his only two break points of the set when he was serving for it at 5-3; he also hit four of his eight aces in that game.

Up a break early in the second set, Raonic coughed it back up as Chardy picked up his form. Raonic didn't serve as well; a revealing stat was that while more than 50 per cent of his serves went unreturned in the third set, that number stood at just 19 per cent in the second. Chardy did a much better job putting it in play, and Raonic won just 5-of-17 points with his second serve.

As well, Raonic's footwork was a little lacking, especially when he tried to move himself into the left corner to hit his trademark inside-out forehand, which too often went into the net because he wasn't in sufficiently good position.

Raonic cleaned all that up in the third, as his serve returned to its usual high level of effectiveness. He also added some additional aggression on his groundstrokes, including more variety on that forehand. And that meant Chardy had a lot more trouble getting the ball to that backhand corner to even test the Raonic footwork.

That left Raonic able to dictate most of the points. He also missed just three first serves in the set, and won 14-of-14 points on that first serve. It was dominant.

Raonic will now play either Novak Djokovic of Serbia or the relentless David Ferrer of Spain in Saturday's semifinal.

The Canadian has faced Djokovic only once, in the highly-charged atmosphere of the Davis Cup semi-final tie in Serbia last fall. Raonic lost in straight sets on an indoor clay court, before an arena full of fans cheering for their home-country hero.

Against Ferrer, Raonic is 0-4. Two of those losses have come on clay. But it's been over two years since the two, who practiced together fairly often back when Raonic was working with Spanish coach Galo Blanco, last met.

Notes: Raonic is still playing with that long protective sleeve on his right arm. Originally it was to protect a rash, an allergic reaction, from the hot sun of Miami. But he's kept on wearing it – with one exception during a match last week in Madrid. We're told the original reason no longer is an issue, but it has become a comfort thing; Raonic feels it keeps the biceps on his serving arm warm. Good to protect the moneymaker. But that's going to be one unassailable tan line to eradicate. ... This is only the second time that two players born in the 1990s reached a Masters 1000 semifinal. Those are the top level of ATP Tour events, second only to the Grand Slams, and have been a veritable playground for the Tour top four players. And Raonic has been part of both occasions; the other was last summer in Montreal, when Raonic and countryman Vasek Pospisil both reached the semis.

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