MELBOURNE – There is a whole lot of tennis yet to be played before the Australian Open semi-finals for Milos Raonic.
But even if that match is theoretically only a week away, the Canadian’s quest for a first Grand Slam title was eased Thursday when world No. 2 Novak Djokovic was hustled out of the tournament by 30-year-old Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan.
Even before the first Grand Slam of the season began, there was consensus that any outlier with title aspirations would more than likely have to go through the top two players on the ATP Tour – by a wide margin – Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Only Murray is left, and the ankle roll he suffered in his second-round match is certainly something to keep on the radar.
Raonic, though, has his own issues. And although he dispatched the potentially dangerous and in-form Gilles Muller of Luxembourg in straight sets Thursday to set up a third-round clash with No. 25 seed Gilles Simon of France, he did it while suffering from a touch of the ‘flu.
The most obvious symptom of it was the raspy voice, and he didn’t help it with all of the exhortations to himself in the latter stages of the third set. He could have played a fourth if he had to, Raonic said afterwards in a voice only a couple of notches above a whisper, but he would have felt worse when it was over than he already did.
“I started feeling a little bit of a cough, but I didn’t think much of it, two days ago after my match, right before bed. Yesterday I was okay. I practiced normally and everything. I thought, ‘Okay, maybe I’m on the way up from this,” he said. “Then this morning, I felt pretty bad waking up. Didn’t warm up much. Just came out with the sort of idea of put everything into the match, try to solve it, understand the importance of the mental side of things in that situation.”
The day Raonic played was the high-heat day. And in combination with the effects of the air-conditioning once inside, he’s not the only one who has suffered some consequences from that even if the effects weren’t necessarily felt on the court during the match.
In Simon, he will face an opponent who will make him earn every point, get every possible ball in play, and be willing to stay out all day to do it. Raonic squeaked out a five-setter at the French Open in 2014, and a tight three-setter at Queen’s Club on grass in 2015; he knows what he’s up against.
“He’s going to be there really trying to get me to play at his speed, his rhythm. Obviously he tries to slow things down, play low. I won’t have the opportunity to get too many swings at many shots,” Raonic said. “I’ve got to serve well and I’ve got to be aggressive and I’ve got to take it to him. The last thing I want to do is get into this sort of game of playing long rallies with him.”
Raonic’s game plan coming into the Australian Open was to move forward aggressively from the very first match, not just when he needed to do it but even when he didn’t, to have those habits ingrained when he came to the pointy end of the tournament. That wasn’t what happened against Muller; indeed, with about 30 net rushes between them, there was a lack of forward movement from two forward-moving players even if Muller picked it up on that end in the third set, when he was up against it.
Raonic said that Thursday was just about getting through it.
“I just tried to keep it as simple and as much about myself as I could. I tried to really focus on the things that I need to do. Today was sort of the day I tried to play the simplest form of tennis I could really bring,” he said. ” I tried to be the one getting the first strikes. I tried to take care of myself. If I got ahead in the set and I fell behind on his serve, I wasn’t necessarily busting my back to get back into those games. I was just really trying to be as simple, efficient and fluid as possible on that court.
“It was working for two sets. Then I had to step it up. I was grateful that I was able to in that third,” he added.
Having Djokovic out of the way is lovely for Raonic, but it’s also lovely for the other contenders in his half of the draw.
If Raonic recovers physically and gets past Simon on Saturday, he would get a Spanish grinder in the fourth round (either Roberto Bautista Agut or David Ferrer), and the winner out of this rather difficult section of the draw in the quarter-finals:
Hopefully they’ll all wear each other out.
Nadal looked impressive in dispatching former Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis Thursday night in their second-round encounter, Zverev impresses every time out and has already survived a five-setter and Monfils, completely under the radar and woefully short of matches in recent months, looks in surprisingly great form.