Raonic squeaks past Stan in marathon

  • Suzi Petkovski

Milos Raonic won a powerhouse match-up with former Melbourne champion Stan Wawrinka to advance to the third round of Australian Open 2019 on Thursday.

The No.16 seed prevailed 6-7(4) 7-6(6) 7-6(11) 7-6(5), an all-tiebreak shootout every bit as tight and engrossing as the scoreline suggests.

Firepower was not in short supply in the four-hour clash that dominated the day program at Rod Laver Arena, played indoors from 4-4 in the third set after sultry skies opened over Melbourne, forcing a half-hour delay for the roof closure.

Thunderous serving under pressure and momentum twists shaped the contest, the closest at Rod Laver Arena so far in the tournament.

Raonic, a former world No.3 and Wawrinka, a three-time major winner, are both struggling to reassert themselves as major forces, following serious health challenges in the past 18 months. On the evidence so far at Melbourne Park, they are not far off.

Canadian Raonic was in devastating touch against Nick Kyrgios in the first round and opened in the same vein against Wawrinka, monstering with his fearsome serve, which has undergone tinkering under coach Goran Ivanisevic, a shortened ball-toss making its direction harder to pick.

On his first serve, Raonic conceded three points in the entire first set. He also roamed forward to spread the 33-year-old Swiss around the court, even off return games. But Wawrinka, the 2014 champion here and now ranked 59, keeps doing special things at Melbourne Park. 

Despite making no inroads on the Raonic serve, he erased all four break points against him and landed some telling blows with his blockbuster backhand late in the set. A ripping pass and a down-the-line winner put him ahead in the tiebreak, and he clinched it with ace number eight – one more than Raonic.

There was precious little between two of the cleanest hitters in the game

The first set told the tale; every tiebreak would go against the run of play.

Raonic made the first break of the match at 2-1 in the second set. But serving at 4-3, the famously over-analytical son of engineers was agitated over an out call that came from the sideline, rather than baseline, judge – though the call itself was correct. 

Wawrinka levelled for 4-all and looked on course to pinch another tiebreak. But at 3-all he made a strangely tentative miss on his favourite down-the-line backhand to go down a mini-break. Raonic iced it with two aces and another big serve on set point.

In the third set, it was the Swiss who dominated on serve, dropping just three points. He was the first to arrive at set point, at 6-5 in the tiebreak, but it was on the Raonic serve, and the big man played a clutch serve-volley. Three set-points apiece flitted back and forth before Raonic got the first on his racquet and landed a service winner to take it 13-11, the tiebreak alone stretching to nearly 20 minutes.

Despite the still indoor conditions favouring Raonic, it was Wawrinka who served for the fourth set at 5-3 as the crowd settled in anticipation of a five-setter. The Canadian lifted when the momentum was against him to turn the match. He then recovered from a 0-2 deficit in the tiebreak, hitting a final booming ace to bring up match point.

84 Milos Raonic
66 Stan Wawrinka

“It feels like four hours passed in 15 minutes,” said the jubilant 28-year-old, a semifinalist here in 2016, when he also beat Wawrinka. “The heat of the battle, the adrenaline, takes over.

“Four tiebreaks – it could have gone either way. I’m happy I could play well and enjoy this atmosphere as well.

He looked up at the roof. “I’m thankful it was indoors, so thank you for raining.”

Raonic still trails Wawrinka 4-3 in their head-to-head meetings but he’s now won the last three, all of them in Grand Slams. 

After drawing two of the biggest unseeded threats in Kyrgios and Wawrinka, the No.16 seed will be heavy favourite against No.53 Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert on Saturday. The world No.53 ousted 2018 Melbourne semifinalist Hyeon Chung in four sets.