Tennis fans have waited years for another men’s tennis player to take the proverbial leap, becoming a player not necessarily on the level of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer or Andy Murray, but clearly a step above the rest of the top 20.
We might be watching Milos Raonic make that move.
The Canadian dispatched Gael Monfils with relative ease in four sets Wednesday night to move into the Australian Open semifinals, his second Grand Slam final-four appearance.
Ruthless as ever with his serve and much improved throughout the court, the No. 13 seed gets Andy Murray next with a shot to loudly establish himself as the ATP’s rising star. The 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 scoreline was even misleading, as Raonic controlled the run of play all night. He looked the part by making every big shot — he was never really threatened in the latter two sets.
Is Raonic about to be an entrenched top-5 stalwart? Unlikely. Can the player who outclassed Monfils in Rod Laver Arena win a Slam title in the next 24 months? You betcha.
Monfils, notoriously erratic in both game and demeanor from match to match, was nothing of the sort in Wednesday’s quarterfinal. In fact, he was bizarrely subdued throughout. Maybe it was playing from behind or even Raonic’s entirely steady personality across the net. No matter, Monfils did not play particularly poorly or give away many points.
No, this match said far more about his opponent. The 6-foot-5 Montenegro native by way of America’s northern neighbor has figured out how to complement a towering serve with above-average net play and improved return results.
Last season, Raonic was 48th on tour in return games won, at a meager 12 percent. His first-serve return rate wasn’t much better: 46th at 24 percent of points won. With a booming serve that consistently tops 135 miles per hour and great angles on his forehand groundstrokes, Raonic doesn’t need to be Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal on defense.
For a player who is threatening to regain a top-10 ranking, though, he needed to establish himself as far better than a borderline top-50 returner in 2016. His offseason was geared toward conditioning and rounding out his game. So far, mission absolutely accomplished.
He’s stepping into his opponents’ service mistakes, and he broke Monfils’s electric serve in three of four sets. The Canadian is no longer a near-automatic hold.
Raonic has lifted his game at the net as well. His volleying is noticeably improved, going back to his title in Brisbane earlier this month, and it’s carried over to Melbourne. Raonic won 31 of 46 points at the net Wednesday night, crouching and using his long arms to angle the ball sharply and with great purpose.
The serve is his old stand-by, and it didn’t disappoint against the Frenchman. Raonic boomed 10 aces, averaged 130-mph serves, and won a whopping 84 percent of his first serves. He’s been dominant before with this serve, but it’s amplified by his improvements elsewhere.
With Raonic’s game in this condition, Andy Murray is probably not an overwhelming favorite in Friday’s semifinal. Form can be overrated, but this isn’t just one hot fortnight for Raonic. He’s in the midst of a breakout 2016, and a showdown with the No. 2 seed on a grand stage — with real expectations to contend with — will be a great barometer for Raonic’s immediate ceiling.
One of the coolest things in sport is watching an athlete take that “leap.” Milos is treating us to such a thing. https://t.co/ePNGOv6dJw
— Juan José Vallejo (@jjvallejoa) January 27, 2016
Regardless, Raonic has proven a great deal. He’s poised to be the next new Grand Slam champion on the men’s side, be it now or in the near future.
There’s no greater reward than watching these transformations happen in real time. We’ll see where Raonic lands after this giant leap Down Under.