MELBOURNE – Given how under the weather he is, the last thing Milos Raonic was looking to do was get caught up in a Gilles Simon strokefest that might have sapped whatever energy he brought to Hisense Arena Saturday evening.
For the most part, the 26-year-old Canadian managed to avoid it. Despite a hiccup in the third set and another that cost him the opportunity to close out the fourth set more quickly than he did, the No. 3 seed’s 6-2, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-3 win over Simon was about all he could have hoped for.
It took a shade over 2 1/2 hours, even as fourth-round opponent Roberto Bautista-Agut of Spain needed four hours to grind down countryman David Ferrer, also in four sets.
Raonic took a couple of breaks during his prematch warmup, coughing and blowing his nose. He had a coughing fit just as he was about to begin the on-court post-match interview after his win.
But the tennis was surprisingly efficient; if you didn’t know he was sick, you likely wouldn’t have suspected it.
“I had a rough last 48 hours. But, you know, I got my energy up today much more. I can sometimes get winded a little bit quicker. But that’s improving,” said Raonic, whose voice was noticeably stronger than it was after his second-round victory over Gilles Muller. “I had a bad fever. I didn’t come here (Friday). I just slept pretty much all day. Yeah, everything was aching. Just sort of those kind of symptoms.”
It was clear from the beginning that Raonic had a strategy designed to destabilize Simon before the canny Frenchman could do the same to him. He served and volleyed plenty, taking advantage of Simon’s flat returns and deep court position. Other than on his serve return, the Canadian notably sheathed his two-handed backhand in favour of his slice for the greater part of the match – until he was up two sets and a break in the third set Simon started to adjust.
“What he did then is he started being more aggressive, started pushing me back. It was working in the first two sets because I was hitting a few slices, and then I’d get around to a forehand. Eventually I was getting stuck to too many slices,” said Raonic, who realized he was getting a little too passive. “I always try to see, ‘Am I the one that is controlling play? Am I behind because I’m not executing? Or am I behind because I’m letting him be the dictator?’ That’s sort of what I look out for. That was my issue towards the end of that third set and a little gap in the fourth set. But I was able to get that back.”
Simon said the start of the second was very hard, but then a few cracks appeared. “He was running me left and right but all of a sudden, he no longer was getting any chances on my serve and I began to get chances on his,” he said. “At 5-5, love-30, I could have done better. In the tiebreak, too. And two sets to none against Milos is complicated; there’s no more room for error.”
Simon did manage to break Raonic three times, and he had a love-40 situation in the first set that the Canadian managed to erase.
“I break often, it’s rare that I don’t. But it came late,” Simon said. “He started very well, 80 per cent of first serves. If he’s at 80% the whole match, well, bravo. But there will be a moment when that will change and since I manage pretty well on the return. … But a few things have to happen.”
Even with big servers, games can turn on very little. In the third game of the fourth set, Simon said, he guessed correctly on the direction for three of Raonic’s serves – and all three of them ended up being called lets.
The Frenchman said he saw no sign of Raonic’s health issues in his third-round match or in this one. But he pointed out that while the notion of trying to keep a sick Canadian on court as long as he possibly could was a great idea in theory, it’s unfortunately not a superpower he possesses when it comes to this matchup.
“He’s the one who has the advantage when he puts the ball into play. That’s the strength of his game – the first shot of the game, he’s the one who dictates. Of course, if I had his serve and he had mine, the score wouldn’t be the same. In my opinion it wouldn’t go four sets. If I could serve underhand, I could decide more things and he’d surely be more tired – even without being sick,” he said, smiling.
Raonic said the Monday matchup with Bautista-Agut, against whom he is 4-0 (all on faster surfaces), is similar to the one with Simon even if Bautista-Agut dictates more with his forehand and isn’t as sy in terms of sucking his opponent into his game.
“Obviously right now the most important thing for me is I can manage my tennis if I can just have my full capacity and I can figure out tennis throughout the matches,” he said. “The most important thing for me right now is just to get myself to full capacity – or as close to it as possible.”