Friday, February 11, 2011

Raonic Rises Above Berankis

In a battle between two of the three youngest ATP players in the top-100, Milos Raonic prevailed in straight sets, 6-4, 7-6(2).

===San Jose, Ca.

Two ascendant players clashed in an intriguing quarterfinal match today in San Jose. Milos Raonic, the imposing Canadian oozing with effortless power, and Richard Berankis the feisty Lithuanian with first-rate ground strokes and a world-class return game.

It didn't take long to tell that no matter how good of a returner Berankis is -- he's an intuitive returner who is exceptionally quick and anticipates well -- he'd be facing an uphill battle in dealing with the Raonic serve, especially on a relatively fast indoor court. If there ever was a task worthy of being called a Sisyphean struggle, it would be the task of trying to mount a serious threat against the Raonic serve these days. You can get the rocks half way up the hill, but a big ace or a service winner is all it takes for Milos to send them tumbling down, down, down.

It didn't help Berankis' cause when he dropped his second serving game of the match, thereby giving Raonic the opportunity to play relatively pressure-free tennis.

These days, losing an early service game is a recipe for disaster against the 20-year-old Canadian, because unlike most 20-year-old's, he's not prone to letdowns. Raonic may be young, but in the last few months he's proven that he's wise beyond his years. He knows the value of an early break, and when he gets one -- like he did today, thanks to some shaky Berankis serving (he served two doubles and faced three break points in the first two games) -- he makes it his business to get maximum value out of it.

Today was no exception.

After securing the break, Raonic brushed aside Berankis' one break opportunity of the match (6th game of the 1st set) by sneaking into the net after a few baseline strokes, and knocking a volley into the open court. It was one small point, but it said a lot about Raonic's ability to play his best tennis at the biggest moments.

It's no secret that Raonic has the game to be great, but there is such a huge chasm between having the tools and actually putting them to use at crunch time. That's big-time tennis, and today, as has been the case all week in San Jose, there were myriad signs that this kid has a champion's mind to match his potent strokes.

But Berankis, ever the scrappy dog, was undeterred by his seemingly unwinnable proposition. He seemed to have a good read on the Raonic first serve, guessing right on several instances, but to no avail. 140-145 M.P.H. can make even the most astute returner look boorish. Still, he battled on valiantly, never seeming to lose belief.

In the second set, a determined Berankis took the initiative on his serve, winning 17 of 18 first serve points, and rattling off three love holds to let Raonic know that he'd have a battle on his hands, whether he liked it or not.

Raonic didn't seem to mind. When things got relatively edgy in the second set -- he was 30-30 at 4-5 and 5-6 -- Raonic unloaded his best stuff from the service line to keep Berankis at bay.

Particularly impressive was the decision by Raonic to start mixing in serve and volley midway through the second set. "He was further back," said Raonic, when I asked him about his decision. "This serve, I feel like I can always get it outside the doubles alley, so all it does it puts a little more pressure on him and a little more doubt. This was more to make him think and sort of bring him out of a comfort zone," said Raonic.

As if things weren't hard enough already for the 5'9" Berankis. He was gaining traction by backing up several feet on the Raonic second serve and plopping returns to the baseline, and while the strategy hadn't given him the break he coveted it was at least giving him chances to win points (he won 6 points in each set against the serve, 12 overall).

The headiness to make changes in a match where nothing was going wrong is the type of thing that will set Raonic apart from other hard-serving usurpers. He doesn't just play the game, he thinks and feels the game.

Berankis does to, and even in defeat, it was impressive to watch him collect himself time and time again after another big serve would siphon the oxygen directly from his lungs.

But Raonic was too much today. He won a spirited baseline rally to secure the first mini-break of the 2nd set tiebreaker, and reeled off 6 of the next 8 points to stake his spot in the semis.

The victory makes him the first Canadian to make the semifinals of the SAP Open since the Open Era began.

I've got a feeling that this is the first of what will be many milestones for Raonic and Canada both.

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