Lessons for Milos Raonic after Roger Federer’s “master class” at Wimbledon

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A big serve, when it’s on, can dominate a match. But more than anything else, tennis is about the things Roger Federer did better than Milos Raonic in the Wimbledon semi-finals.

It’s about agility, accuracy and exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses at the right times. (Think of Rafael Nadal kicking topspin forehands high to Federer’s backhand.) It’s about executing strategy, adjusting on the fly, hitting your targets, maneuvering your opponents and throwing them off their game. (Andre Agassi’s returns disarming the weapons of big servers like Pete Sampras). It’s about figuring out how to beat a particular opponent on that day.

Federer gave Raonic a master class in these finer points, as he does to others. In Raonic’s very first game in the magic dust and swirling winds of Centre Court, he saw a Federer forehand dipping at his feet — the last place he wants to see a ball from his 6’5” perch. Off-balance, Raonic looped an awkward forehand wide, immediately falling behind a break to the game’s greatest front-runner — a worse case scenario.

“I think probably I would have given myself a chance to find a bit more understanding, a bit more comfort, and probably the level that I know I could display a little bit better if I was able to get through that one,” Raonic said of the first game. “I didn’t put in the serves I needed to. Normally I start off serving much better, and then he came up with the right shots. Pretty much every single time he was leaning the right way. He was hitting good deep returns that didn’t allow me to sort of get into it.”

The rest of the match seemed to follow a pre-ordained script, as Federer, 32, writes more chapters in history. Federer toyed with Raonic. He deployed wily veteran moves to rattle the apprentice. Federer returned one bullet serve with a behind-the-back trick shot. He stared down a Raonic forehand rifled at his head, and calmly volleyed it into open court. Since Raonic wouldn’t serve and volley, Federer charged the net on his return, taking command of the net as if it was in his own backyard.

Federer never lost serve, broke Raonic once in each set, and cruised to a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win over a very dangerous young challenger.

Raonic had really only one chance to alter destiny. After hitting what John McEnroe called “the greatest backhand of his life”, he had his only break point in the match. But Raonic missed a backhand return long, Federer held serve and never looked back. The young Raonic hit sharp-angled aces and solid volleys in patches, and played well enough to beat most players, but he couldn’t figure out how to solve the 7-time Wimbledon champion in his favorite palace.

“I felt like he played really well in that first game,” said Raonic. “It was the other aspects that I feel, later through the second and third set, where I couldn’t find that solution. He hits all the spots, he hits them well. The most dangerous part about him is the first strike he has. He’s very quick. He takes the ball early. An average return isn’t good enough. You have to focus on making a very good return.”

Raonic most likely will someday solve Federer, just as many junior players eventually figure out how to beat their teachers at the club. Raonic’s greatest gift — along with his missile serves — is an ability to weigh his own strengths and weaknesses from a detached perspective. Like Federer, you can see Raonic thinking in silence on the court, and his press conference answers reveal his analytical mind and emotional balance.

“I think I’ll learn it (today’s lessons) when I step away and emotion doesn’t affect how I deal with this match right now,” he said. Asked if upcoming talents can unthrone the Big Four, he said: “Guys have the level within themselves. I think it’s more an understanding of how to deal with the situation. That’s something that I didn’t do well today. I believe I can put myself in this situation again.”

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Despite the loss, Raonic has taken giant strides toward his goal of inspiring Canada and winning a slam. He gets it. He works hard to improve. He surrounds himself with good people. He says the right things, even if his pre-match comment — interpreted as ‘Federer is just a guy in my way’ — is misrepresentative of Raonic, a modest man steeped in respect for the game.

He’s not precocious like Genie Bouchard. He’s more serious than young players such as Ernests Gulbis and Bernard Tomic. He’s modeled himself after his earnest idol Pete Sampras, and it’s brought him to number 6 in the world at age 23.

But he couldn’t handle balls dipped or sliced at his feet or at his wing on the run, and he couldn’t chase down drop shots or down-the-liners — all at key points. He missed an overhead and double faulted at crucial times, erasing the advantages of his power. He gifted short balls for Federer to put away with ease.

These are the type of errors or soft points that lose matches at any level, let alone against Federer at Wimbledon. To his credit, Raonic saw the same match we did. With the taste of defeat raw in his mouth, he summed up his success — and disappointment — at Wimbledon better than anyone.

“I was expecting much better from myself. I know I can do much better,” Raonic said. “I would have liked an opportunity to play more (on Center Court). It wasn’t the physical things around me. It was more so, knowing what opportunity lies ahead. Maybe I put that on myself too much.”

“Right now, looking at the big picture, the last two weeks in a lot of ways have been very successful. I go from never winning consecutive matches here, to probably only winning consecutive matches once on grass, to putting myself in position in the final four at this event.”

“There’s a lot of good things to take from it. If you asked me before the event started, would I sign on the dotted line to make semis here, yes I would. When you get here to this point. It’s the greed of human nature that you want so much more. You feel it in front of you and you want to grab it. I think there’s nothing wrong with that.”

— text and images by Christopher Johnson, Globalite Media, all rights reserved —