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Steve Flink: Melzer Topples Raonic With Guile

2/27/2012 7:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

As Jurgen Melzer headed into the 2012 season, he could have easily been pessimistic. The 30-year-old Austrian had been hampered decidedly a year ago by problems with his back and the burden of living up to the high standards he set in 2010, when he finished just outside the world’s top ten at No. 11 after winning 51 of 76 matches and reaching the semifinals of the French Open. In that Roland Garros edition, he recouped boldly from two sets down to oust Novak Djokovic in a stirring five set quarterfinal. Later that season, he upended Rafael Nadal—his French Open conqueror—in Shanghai. In the spring of 2011, Melzer defeated none other than Roger Federer for the first time in his career, ousting the Swiss in Monte Carlo.

The rest of last year, Melzer, troubled by his ailing back, clearly not confident, often out of sorts, fell into disrepair. He finished 2011 with a losing match record at 22-23, slipping from a career high of No. 8 in the world during the spring to a year-end status of No. 33. He came into the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis this past week at No. 38. Frankly, I thought Melzer might well have moved permanently past his prime. I did not expect to see him performing any longer as remarkably as he once did. He lost in the opening round of the Australian Open to Ivo Karlovic, and was beaten in three of his first five 2012 matches before recovering some of his old conviction to stop both Igor Kunitsyn and Alex Bogomolov Jr. in Davis Cup a few weeks ago.

But everything fell into place for the Austrian in Memphis. Reestablishing yourself after a long slump can be an arduous process. It takes an awful lot of hard work and even a little bit of luck to create a new winning pattern. Melzer fought hard to get through a couple of early round matches, and was rewarded for his effort with some good fortune. He started the week with a 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory over Denis Istomin, who had just reached the final in San Jose. Next up for Melzer was Ivan Dodig, a player who had just recorded a very good win over Bernard Tomic. Melzer battled from behind again to stop Dodig 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5). He collided with John Isner in the quarterfinals, and the American had recently beaten Roger Federer in a pivotal Davis Cup match, helping to lead the Americans past Switzerland. But Melzer removed the towering Isner 6-3, 7-6 (6). He then accounted for the ever dangerous Radek Stepanek in the semifinals, prevailing 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

That was an impressive run to the final, but his chances of overcoming Milos Raonic did not look promising. Raonic had just defended his crown in San Jose without the loss of a set, and had marched into the final of Memphis without losing a set as well. He had lost his serve only once in San Jose, and the 6’5” Canadian had lost only one service game in four matches on his way to the meeting with Melzer in Memphis. Raonic had lost a terrific final against Andy Roddick in Memphis a year ago, but this time around he seemed primed to take the title.

Through most of the opening set, Raonic had the upper hand. His serve was devastatingly potent and accurate, and Melzer was unable to read the direction of that well concealed delivery. From deuce in the opening game of the match, Raonic won no fewer than 18 consecutive points on his serve in building a 5-4 lead. In those five service games, he served ten aces. Melzer was under extreme fire, and yet he was concentrated, bold and explosive off the ground, and strategically sound on his own serve. And yet, at 4-5, the pressure was all on Melzer. Raonic had him down 15-30, and the Canadian was only two points from sealing the set. But Melzer calmly took control of the next point and finished it off with an overhead winner. At 30-30, he played another terrific point, winning that one with an inside-out forehand winner. Raonic got back to deuce, but Melzer held on obstinately for 5-5.

With Raonic serving in the eleventh game, Melzer demonstrated why he is one of the most tactically agile competitors in his trade. He confounded Raonic by dramatically changing his return of serve positioning, moving way back behind the baseline, and also shifting from side to side in both the deuce and ad courts to take away some of Raonic’s options, to reduce the Canadian’s ability to serve aces down the T or out wide, depending on the situation. Melzer was making Raonic think, confusing the 21-year-old, taking his young adversary out of his comfort zone. Raonic began missing off the forehand because he was confounded by Melzer’s propensity to get his returns back into play from so far behind the court. Raonic should have tried to serve-and-volley, or he could have simply kept trying to hit his spots in the corners and dared Melzer to come up with the goods. But the Canadian was caught off guard and allowed the wily Austrian to seriously disturb his rhythm.

In that crucial 5-5 game, Raonic led 30-15, but Melzer connected with a forehand down the line winner into the corner. Then Melzer made one of his safe backhand returns at a relatively high trajectory, and Raonic—with too much time to think—netted an inside-out forehand. Suddenly, and very unexpectedly, Melzer was at break point. The Austrian seized the initiative, making his way forward commandingly, provoking Raonic into a passing shot error. Serving for the set in the following game, the cagey left-hander served-and-volleyed a couple of times, made a spectacular forehand passing shot winner, and closed out the set with a timely ace at 40-30, swinging his slice serve out wide with precision. He played that important game unhesitatingly.

Raonic shook off that disappointment, and broke Melzer to move ahead 3-1 in the second set. On his fourth break point in that game, Raonic made a sparkling forehand passing shot down the line at full stretch. He held on for 4-1, and seemed back in control of the proceedings. Yet Melzer refused to concede the set. With Raonic serving at 4-2, Melzer took charge admirably. At deuce, an apprehensive Raonic double faulted, and at break point down he pressed again, netting an inside-out forehand. Melzer had broken back with another brilliantly orchestrated return game, unnerving Raonic in the process. Melzer held at love for 4-4.

And yet, Raonic remained poised. He held at love for 5-4 and had a set point in the tenth game, only to send a backhand up the line into the net, committing a glaring unforced error. Melzer held on tenuously for 5-5. Both men served love games to set up a tie-break. The first seven points of that crucial sequence went with the server, but it was Raonic who cracked first. At 3-4, he failed to take advantage of a solid yet not very deep return from Melzer. Raonic missed again with the inside-out forehand. Melzer had the mini-break for 5-3. At 5-4, he was fortunate when Raonic missed narrowly with a running forehand down the line. Melzer promptly directed a first serve wide to the backhand, and Raonic could not handle the return. Melzer had won the match 7-5, 7-6 (4) to garner only his fourth career singles title on the ATP World Tour, depriving Raonic of a third tournament win of 2012 in the process.

Both players made significant progress in the rankings with their showings in Memphis. Raonic moves from No. 35 up to No. 24, while Melzer goes from No. 38 back into the top twenty at No. 19. These two players will remember Memphis for entirely different reasons. Melzer was a total professional, salvaging both sets from unenviable positions. He was two points away from losing the first set three times, but his poise and professionalism allowed the Austrian to escape. In the second set, he was in jeopardy at 1-4 down, and again when he needed to erase a set point against him in the tenth game. It was a match Raonic could well have won in straight sets, but Melzer’s alertness, determination and perspicacity enabled him to gain a win on a day when he seemed likely to lose more than once.

Raonic surely will put his defeat in perspective and recognize that he was given an education of sorts by a tough and able craftsman. The fact remains that he is back where he belongs as a member of the top 25 in the world. He has never been ranked higher than where he is right now. This setback in Memphis will not sting for that long. A year ago, he had to retire in a second round meeting with Gilles Muller at Wimbledon after injuring his right hip. He had surgery in early July and was gone for two months, missing the U.S. Open. If he can avoid any serious injuries this season, he will inevitably finish the year among the top 15 in the world, and probably will climb into the top ten.

As for Melzer, he will be hard pressed to return to the top ten, but he has his self-belief back, and the triumph in Memphis will carry him forward with renewed purpose and optimism. He is a credit to his profession, a tennis player with an uncommonly nimble mind, a competitor of versatility and creativity, a strategist of the top class. The hope here is that he can hold his ground in the top twenty, keep winning his share of matches, continue performing with the verve he displayed in Memphis. Jurgen Melzer is a tennis player’s tennis player, and that is a label that can’t be worn by too many men in the business.