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Saturday, January 19, 2013
Raonic hopes to give Federer a fit

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- It was must-see TV in Australia. As Saturday's  match between Roger Federer and Bernard Tomic reached a climax in the second-set tiebreaker, Milos Raonic was also watching. Even more than the millions of other viewers, Raonic had an interest in the outcome. He played the winner next.

Tomic had taken a 5-3 lead in the 'breaker, and Federer looked to be under serious threat -- until he pulled out a series of brilliant shots to win the next four points and take the set.

Milos Raonic
Milos Raonic boasts one of the biggest serves in the game, but he'll need some versatility to take down Roger Federer.

Raonic's reaction? "It's Roger," he said.

He wouldn't expect anything less. After all, Federer's done it to him before. The two met three times last year, and each time Raonic won the first set but went on to lose the match. At the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., Federer prevailed 6-4 in the third. At the Mutua Madrilena Masters in Madrid and the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, Germany, it was even closer -- a third-set tiebreaker decided both matches.

In Madrid, Raonic had a forehand lined up in the tiebreaker but missed to give Federer a match point. He saw the great Swiss hit a return winner to seal the victory. In Halle, Raonic again seemed to have the upper hand during the match, but tame returning and Federer's experience eventually won out.

But along the way, the 22-year-old Canadian certainly got Federer's attention. "I've had some tough matches with him in the past," said Federer, looking ahead to Monday's encounter in the fourth round of the Australian Open. "All of them went the distance. Some of them I should have lost, maybe one or two. At Indian Wells, I felt like I was more in control than the other two. In Madrid I was in a lot of trouble. Halle was extremely close."

That's why even though this match has been talked up much less than the Tomic encounter, Federer will be taking it as a more serious challenge. The 31-year-old legend has never lost to a player as young as Raonic, but knows the threat is growing and a defeat would be seen as symbolic.

"We'll see this time around how it's going to be," said Federer. "He's obviously got one of the best serves in the game, up and coming. So you always feel, especially after an offseason like the one we've just had, he's maybe improved again a few things or he's worked on a few things."

Actually, Raonic has been struggling a bit. He looked lackluster in his first few matches of the season and then had a fever last week. But he is now starting to feel better and his illness may even have helped him get a win over Philipp Kohlschreiber in the previous round. "In a way, it was a good thing because I've been struggling a little bit with the intensity," said Raonic.

He also feels there's something different about him ahead of this fourth meeting. "Experience," Raonic said. "I think I played well in the other ones. I think I got pretty damn close the one time in Madrid. I got pretty close in Halle. I just know how to deal with it. I think I have a higher tolerance within myself and a higher belief within myself stepping up against Roger."

The biggest reason Raonic has been able to push Federer to the brink so many times is that he is one of the game's biggest servers, leading the tournament with 71 aces so far and tied for the fastest delivery at 141 mph. But even that won't be enough on its own to beat Federer, who may not be the best returner in the game but is perhaps the best at handling monster serves.

The "Missile" also has a big forehand up his sleeve and a solid ground game, but his return can falter under pressure and his movement can be exposed by Federer's variety. If Raonic has his way, however, that won't come into play. The goal is to "try as much as I can not to play on Roger's terms, to play on my own terms." The serious, thoughtful Raonic, who grew up admiring Pete Sampras, has a checklist of things he wants to do. The components:

" "Take care of my serve is No. 1."

" "Really dictate or try to dictate as much as I can and go for it."

" "Not give him too much rhythm."

" "Sort of sink my teeth into the match as much as I can."

" "Give it my all."

" "Stay aggressive as much as I can."

" "Try to get ahead in as many points as I can."

It'll take some doing. But beating Federer usually does.

Frenchmen making their mark

Gilles Simon was limping back to the locker room after his five-set win over Gael Monfils on Saturday night. After 4 hours, 23 minutes, the Frenchman could barely move and had to lean on a helper as he walked. But he shook his head when offered a wheelchair. "I still have," he began, then broke off, searching his fuzzy brain for the English word, "my pride."

And onward he limped.

Two days on, that determination may be the biggest thing he takes into his fourth-round match against Andy Murray. "Of course, it will be really, really difficult, but at the moment, I just happy that I won the last one, and I will just try to go & even if I don't have a lot of chance to win this," Simon said. It doesn't help that his record against Murray is 1-9, and as he joked, those times "I was in better shape when I was going on the court."

"And the thing is: It's difficult to win 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 against Andy. I'm not sure if we play longer than that, that I will be able to make it to the end."

After what he went through, that isn't surprising. It wasn't just the length of the match against Monfils, but the grinding rallies that characterized it, epitomized by a 71-shot exchange in the second set. The six longest points played in the men's tournament so far all came in this match, and 12 of the top 20 overall.

"I was in a bad shape," said Simon. "I felt I played the end of the match like in a dream, like I was not even on the court. I was just hitting the ball, trying to run, trying to catch it, and not thinking anymore."

The match was the latest and most extreme episode in what has been a dramatic tournament for the French players, belying the otherwise generally quiet first few days of the Australian Open. A rundown of les matches fou offers a glimpse of the tumult contained within. Marion Bartoli dropped nine games in a row to go down 5-0 in the third set of her third-round match to Ekaterina Makarova, battled back to 5-4 and then lost. Both were in quite a state by the end. There was Monfils a round before Simon, going through a 7-6 (5), 4-6, 0-6, 6-1, 8-6 roller coaster that left everyone watching bewildered -- and little suspecting that there were even stranger things to come. Jeremy Chardy took the scenic route in his upset of Juan Martin del Potro, letting slip a two-set lead before winning a deciding fifth set.

Perhaps it wasn't that surprising that the topper came in the all-French faceoff between Simon and Monfils. Even other players found themselves watching on TV past midnight and exclaiming over the absurd length of the rallies. Despite wildly different styles, both Frenchmen are excellent retrievers and rarely end points quickly, so the spectacle was predictable but still arresting.

After all that, it all comes to a head Monday. Simon will crawl up for his meeting with Murray, Chardy faces Andreas Seppi in a big opportunity for both and there's another all-French encounter between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet. What might that one bring?

Probably nothing like the one before. Tsonga and Gasquet have managed to get through with a minimum of mishap so far, and their shot-making skills should preclude a running contest like the one between Monfils and Simon.

But if this week is any indication, there's no telling what lies in store when Les Bleus are on the court.