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Steve Flink: Raonic & Federer Shine Indoors

2/21/2012 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

One is a burly 6’5”, 21-year-old Canadian, commanding in his court presence, and among the most daunting competitors in tennis. He must rank among the top three servers in the sport, and his stroke vocabulary is growing rapidly as he refines his game and moves sweepingly toward the upper levels of his profession. The other is Swiss, nine years older, an ineffably masterful shot maker, immensely accomplished, and perhaps the greatest player in the history of the game. One is just beginning to explore his potential, hoping to back up a spirited yet abbreviated 2011 campaign with a more far reaching season in 2012. The other has won a record 16 singles majors across a sterling career, but has not captured a Grand Slam event since the Australian Open of 2010, and wants to make amends and add more luster to his resume this year by rededicating himself toward the all-consuming pursuit of taking another prize straight off the top shelf.

Last weekend, both Milos Raonic and Roger Federer captured titles in very different parts of the world. Federer needed a confidence boost after commencing his 2012 season with a four set semifinal loss to Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open, followed by another four set setback at the hands of John Isner in the opening round of Davis Cup back home in Switzerland. He took the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam, picking apart Juan Martin Del Potro meticulously in a 6-1, 6-4 final round triumph, securing his 71st career singles title in the process. He has now won at least one singles title on the ATP World Tour for no fewer than twelve consecutive years. Rotterdam is only a level 500 event on the ATP World Tour, while San Jose—where Raonic defended his title—is classified even lower at the 250 level. The fact remains that winning tournaments of any kind is of inestimable value to the leading players.

Federer has not lost on an indoor hard court, winning five straight tournaments and 24 matches in a row since the charismatic Gael Monfils saved five match points to topple the Swiss in the semifinals indoors at Paris in the autumn of 2010. He took that knowledge with him into his duel with Del Potro on Sunday, and cast aside the towering Argentine with surprising ease. Federer did not lose his serve against the man who had upended him in a five set collision in the 2009 U.S. Open final, and the primary reason the Swiss triumphed so comfortably was his moxie. He never allowed Del Potro to settle into the contest, refusing to let Del Potro to set the tempo with gargantuan ground strokes, out maneuvering the big man with penetrating and uncannily accurate flat forehands along with a brilliant combination of sliced and topspin backhands.

On top of that, Federer defended steadfastly from the baseline, keeping himself admirably in many rallies with remarkable saves off both sides, especially with his sliced forehand from deep positions behind the baseline. The Federer backcourt recipe was too much for an opponent who was far too rigid and intemperate. Del Potro was swept aside by some startling winners from the world No. 3, but the Argentine’s ineptitude and obstinacy were major factors as well.

The opening game of the Federer-Del Potro contest set the tone for the afternoon, and symbolized the plight of the harried Argentine. Federer made good on only 4 of 12 first serves, was pushed to deuce three times, and faced two break points. But Del Potro did not exploit that opportunity. He squandered one of those break points with a poorly executed forehand crosscourt that he pulled wide in response to a sliced backhand from Federer, and missed out on the other when Federer seized control of the point with a trademark inside-out forehand that set up an overhead winner. Federer closed out that significant game with an ace down the T, and then a wide serve that set up a forehand swing volley winner.

Federer took much comfort from that hold. He swept 16 of the next 21 points in bolting to 5-0. Federer broke for 2-0 with a deft forehand drop shot leading to an overhead winner. He held at 30 for 3-0, then broke Del Potro at 15 for 4-0. At double break point, Federer drew Del Potro into the forecourt, and on his third passing shot attempt he connected with an inside-out forehand winner. In a love hold for 5-0, Federer opened the game with a blazing backhand crosscourt winner, and closed it with a forehand crosscourt winner driven impeccably. Federer wrapped up the set two games later.

Yet Del Potro got his bearings in the second set. Moving ahead 2-1, he dropped only two points on serve, and found his range decidedly better off his explosive forehand side. With Federer serving in the fourth game, Del Potro’s weight of shot overwhelmed Federer at 30-30. The heaviness of his forehand provoked a forehand mistake from the Swiss, taking the Argentine to break point. Federer wiped that opportunity away emphatically, sending a flat serve out wide to the backhand, forcing Del Potro to make a weak return. Federer stepped in boldly to put away a forehand drive volley into the open court. He soon held on for 2-2.

With Del Potro serving in the fifth game, Federer’s tactical acuity was showcased again. He drew Del Potro forward with a short backhand chipped return, and passed him cleanly with an inside out forehand. Del Potro had been close to establishing a service break lead for himself, but now he was down a break. Yet Del Potro garnered a break point to get back to 3-3, only to let it slip away with an errant backhand crosscourt wide. In exasperation, he slapped his head with his hand. Del Potro had another break point later in the game; this time, Federer took matters into his own hands, punishing Del Potro for hitting a relatively short ball. The Swiss cracked a clean winner crosscourt off the forehand, and held on for 4-2.

Del Potro stood his ground, holding at 15 for 3-4. His last serious chance occurred when Federer served at 15-40 in the following game. Federer had just double faulted to put himself in that bind, but he erased the first break point by coming forward to angle away a backhand volley crosscourt. On the next break point, Federer put his excellent defensive game fully on display, and on the 22nd stroke of the rally Del Potro drove a two-hander wide. Federer went on to record another crucial hold to move ahead 5-3. It was just about over. Although Del Potro saved two match points at 3-5 with an ace and a service winner, Federer served it out in the next game.       

Now Federer has a 9-2 career lead over Del Potro in their series, and the feeling grows that the Argentine is simply not the same player he was when he struck back so audaciously to beat Federer in that 2009 U.S. Open final. He had been taken apart the first five times he collided with Federer from 2007 into the middle of 2009, but then had seemingly found the formula to compete favorably with the Swiss. At the 2009 French Open in the semifinals, Del Potro led two sets to one before bowing in five sets against the Swiss. Then he won their next two meetings at the U.S. Open and the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at the end of that year in London.

The following year, of course, Del Potro played a total of only six matches and he had surgery for an ailing wrist. His comeback in 2011 was commendable. Del Potro climbed back to No. 11 in the world, won two titles, and was remarkable in many ways. But whenever he confronts the top players these days, Del Potro--- now stationed at No. 10—no longer seems as sure of himself. Federer has won his last four meetings with the Argentine since the summer of 2011, and has not lost a set in that span. To be sure, Federer played a terrific final in Rotterdam, and was strategically sound all through the contest. But Del Potro was very disappointing.

The Argentine has seldom looked more one-dimensional. He had obliterated Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-1 in the semifinals, and should have been rested and ready to at least test Federer in the championship match. But he often looked out of his league, and seldom imposed himself. Federer was successful with only 49% of his first serves, yet Del Potro never broke the Swiss. Del Potro remains a formidable player, but I don’t see him winning another major anytime soon. My faith in him is diminishing. He can be his own worst enemy.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the week in Rotterdam was a revitalized Nikolay Davydenko, the perennial top five in the world performer who has lost so much ground over the last few years. Davydenko had concluded five consecutive years amidst the top six in the world, but he slipped to No. 22 at the end of 2010, and last year he fell to No. 41. And yet, he nearly upended Federer in the semifinals of Rotterdam. He reminded us with this performance what has made him such a terrific tennis player. His footwork and lateral movement at the baseline is a sight to behold; no one is any better in that capacity. He caught Federer off guard with the quality of his ball striking in their Rotterdam meeting.

Davydenko took the first set and surged to 3-1 in the second. Federer captured five games in a row. But Davydenko sensed he could still win the match. Federer’s timing off the forehand was not up to his normally lofty standards, and his sliced backhand was not functioning particularly well either. Federer kept tapping his hand on his racket strings. He was befuddled by his lack of feel. Davydenko was dictating a good many points with his flat strokes off both sides, and was beating Federer to the punch. Early in the third set, Davydenko rescued himself admirably. He saved four break points in the first game and two more in the third. Later, the 30-year-old Russian moved within striking distance of victory. Federer was serving at 3-4, 0-40 in that absorbing final set. At 15-40, Davydenko had a wide opening for a backhand down the line off a relatively short ball, but netted it. Federer escaped, winning 13 of the last 14 points to prevail 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

He had won that match largely on poise, willpower and outstanding defense.  His survival instincts kicked in just in time. And that set the stage for his far more commanding triumph over Del Potro in the final. Federer’s indoor hard court mastery continued.

Meanwhile, Raonic took his second title of 2012 unhesitatingly. In the semifinals, he stopped Ryan Harrison 7-6 (4), 6-2, avenging a loss to the American at Indian Wells a year ago. Raonic conceded only six points in six opening set service games and always seemed to be the marginally better player. The 19-year-old Harrison saved a break point at 4-4 with an ace. But, in the tie-break, Raonic built a quick mini-break lead, served consecutive aces for 3-0, and moved confidently to 4-0. A persistent Harrison closed the gap to 5-4, but Raonic aced the American down the T for 6-4, and sealed the set with an excellent inside-out forehand approached that stymied Harrison. At 1-1 in the second set, Harrison had his only break point, but Raonic saved it with a thundering 143 MPH first serve to the backhand that the American could not handle. Harrison double faulted at break point down to enable Raonic to take a 3-1 lead, and then the Canadian unleashed three aces and a service winner in a love hold for 4-1, recording the first of those aces effortlessly at 150 MPH.

Harrison held one more time for 2-4, but that was it. Raonic served three more aces in holding at 15 for 5-2, and then broke again to put the match deservedly into his victory column. Harrison had played first rate tennis, but Raonic had overwhelmed him with the pace of his forehand and the devastating potency and accuracy of his first and second serves.

In the final, Raonic took on Denis Istomin, a player who had accounted for both Sam Querrey and Andy Roddick during the week. And yet, he never really had a chance in the final. Raonic won 27 of 30 first serve points (90%) and 17 of 18 second serve points (94%). His service games were over almost before they began, and Istomin surely felt unnerved by the size of his challenge. When the first set went to a tie-break, Istomin was painfully aware that he could not afford to lose it. But before he knew it, Istomin was mired in difficulty, from the moment he missed a backhand approach on the first point of the sequence.

Raonic prevailed seven points to three in the tie-break, finishing it off with a 145 MPH ace out wide in the Ad Court. From 1-1 in the second set, Raonic lost only one more game. In the final game of the match, Raonic demonstrated the growing versatility of his game, releasing a drop shot that Istomin answered with a drop shot of his own. Raonic scampered forward swiftly and sliced a lob off the backhand tantalizingly over Istomin’s head.  Istomin chased it down but had no play. Raonic took the match 7-6 (3), 6-2 to win his second SAP Open in a row at San Jose. That was a first class piece of business from Raonic, who will surely be a serious force in the game of professional tennis this year. He has the head, the heart and such an unstoppable serve that he will frighten an awful lot of top players this coming year.

Milos Raonic. Roger Federer. It was their week indoors in the middle of February. One is out to prove that 2011 was no accident, and is determined to make considerable strides all through 2012. The other is looking to rediscover his winning ways on the most prominent stages, to prove as he approaches 31 that he remains young at heart and as committed as ever to striving for excellence. Both men are going to be front and center all across 2012.