It would almost have been poetic justice for the outsider who may well end the 2016 season as the No. 3 player in the world to spoil a potential season-ending match because the only two ahead of him, to decide who will be No. 1.
But Milos Raonic couldn’t get there. Not quite.
After a three-hour, 38-minute epic that eclipsed the previous marathon record at the ATP Tour Finals by some 18 minutes, Raonic went down to the man who has been on the other side of the net for most of his disappointing losses this season – hometown favourite Andy Murray.
The 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9) Murray victory was a physical crusher for the winner, and an emotional crusher for the loser. The tennis was very good sometimes, absolutely inspired at other times, nervous at most times, tense and draining at all times.
Raonic could smile at the net when it was over, because he gave it every little bit that he had – and then some. But it ends up as yet another occasion where he pushes the best in the world a long way, but can’t quite get over the hump.
Could the 25-year-old Canadian have executed better in some moments? Of course. But then, Murray could have as well; he served for the match twice in that third set, only to get broken, before finally pulling it out in the deciding tiebreak.
When he arrived in his press conference, Raonic appeared to have had all the emotions of a roller-coaster of a season rain down on him all at once after the match. His eyes were red; he was sniffly. It shouldn’t be a surprise if he let out a whole lot of reined-in emotion at the conclusion of that match – at the conclusion of a season where he battled his health as much as he did the best players in the world.
As much as Raonic tries to turn the mandate of becoming the best tennis player in the world into a science project, he’s conducting those experiments with a subject who is very much human. His fight, and Murray’s, were endearingly human, and loud, and emotional, and exhausting even for the fans of both players to watch.
“There’s a lot to take away from it. I have to be proud that I finished the year with giving it every ounce of energy I had. I’m pretty sure I’m going to feel like crap tomorrow,” Raonic told the media. “I’ll look back at 2016 with a lot of good moments, a lot of pride, a lot to be proud of.”
Murray will have a day to try to recuperate before taking on Novak Djokovic in his final match.
Given he broke his own “longest-ever” record Saturday (he went three hours and 20 minutes against Kei Nishikori in the round-robin portion earlier in the week), that’s a tough prospect made even tougher by the ease with which Djokovic won his own match later in the evening.
This will be the first time Murray plays Djokovic since they met in the French Open final more than five months ago. The winner ends the season No. 1.
The silver lining for Raonic came a little later in the evening when Djokovic rolled over Nishikori 6-1, 6-1 in the second semi-final. With that loss by Nishikori, Raonic guaranteed himself the No. 3 year-end ranking – a career best.
If there was a theme to the second half of Raonic’s season, it was that he found too many ways to lose matches he seemed to have well in hand. Either out of nerves, or brief lapses of focus, or crises of confidence, something always happened and it often happened against lesser opponents.
It also happened against Murray at Queen’s Club, just before Wimbledon, when Raonic was up a set and a break of serve and let it get away.
“There was definitely some moments where I could have gotten down on myself, where I could have been my own worst enemy. But today I really tried to, in the best way possible, leave it all out there,” Raonic said. “I turned it around for myself twice there at the end of the third. I turned it around for myself almost there in the tiebreak. I just did everything I could, everything that was within me, at least to really try to win. It’s that simple.”
Raonic was up a set and a break on Murray in this one as well. It was a lead carved by an ability to control matters with his forehand at a level not previously seen against Murray, according to the ATP Tour’s statistics.
All week, he had been striking his groundstrokes at a level of consistency and effectiveness that had waxed and waned the previous six months. That was starkly apparent in the round-robin loss to Djokovic. Against Murray, though, he couldn’t just rely on that against a player whose confidence from the ground was more well-earned this fall than that of the longtime No. 1 from Serbia.
So he attacked; Raonic came to the net 61 times and won 41 of those points. If at first Murray discouraged him by defending with some short, highly spun backhands that landed at his feet and handcuffed him, he was undeterred. It was nearly enough.
But not quite enough.
Raonic was two points away in the second set. He earned one match point in the third-set tiebreak after saving three of Murray’s, at 8-9 on Murray’s serve. He got a second serve to work with, too. A beautiful backhand volley, slightly off-pace and short in the court by design, saved it for the Scot.
With that point, the two were tied at 136 points apiece after more than 3 1/2 hours.
The next two, won by Murray, were the difference.
“I thought I did well. I managed with a lot of things. I think the thing that I’ll probably be most proud of when I sit down and talk with my coaches is just the way I kept fighting through,” Raonic said. “A lot of things seemed difficult, like it would be a tough day before the match, just throughout everything over the last little while. I really just put it all out there, just gave it a go with everything.
“Like I said, I’ll probably feel like crap for the next few days. But at least mentally I’ll be proud of the way things finished.”