The Milos Raonic way to victory — play poorly, serve well

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—by Christopher Johnson—

Milos Raonic likes to share a lesson that his idol Pete Sampras taught him: ‘Champions find a way to win, even when not playing well.’

It’s amazing how often Raonic plays poorly, misses groundies, volleys and overheads — and yet manages to serve his way to tiebreaker wins.

Brad Gilbert calls it “winning ugly”. Raonic does it simply by serving big when it counts.

After surviving a scare from upcoming US hopeful Jack Sock on Wednesday, Raonic said he got lucky with a 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) win at the Rogers Cup in his hometown Toronto.

“There was a little sliver of an opening, and I managed to find a way to squeeze through,” he said on court.

Sock played well enough to beat most players. He never lost his serve. He repeatedly trapped Raonic in a pattern of Raonic hitting weak backhands to Sock’s runaround inside-out forehand. Sock twice gave himself chances to break Raonic’s serve in the third set.

But Raonic found the sliver of an opening, and squeezed through.

“I feel good in those situations,” Raonic said of tiebreakers. “Especially if things are not going throughout the set the way I would’ve liked, I’m not converting opportunities or giving away too many opportunities, I know that if I can get it to a tiebreak I can sort of tip the things in my favour.”

With copious unforced errors, Raonic had no business winning the second set. Serving at 2-2, he netted a casual forehand, sailed an overhead wide in the wind, and missed two easy forehand volleys due to clumsy footwork. He looked like the world number 600, not 6. But he still held serve, thanks to his serve.

Sock had chances to claw back in the tie-breaker, but missed two easy ones at the net, and then couldn’t handle Raonic’s serve.

Sock had more chances in the third, but even sailed wide his inside-out forehand after running around his backhand a little too far.

Born in Montenegro and raised in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill, Raonic swore at himself not in English, French or Spanish. He didn’t look comfortable. He missed casual forehands and challenged backhands. Yet his serve kept him in it.

And so did his toughness and nastiness. Just before the second set tiebreaker, he beaned a shot at Sock’s head, and didn’t apologize. Sock, caught off guard, ducked and then stared at Raonic. This energized the Canadian crowd, always eager for a Canada-US rivalry.

“A couple of them (fans) were a little more rude than I thought,” Sock said. “I thought he got treated pretty well last week in the States, and there were some pretty inappropriate comments tonight.”

Charged, Raonic zoomed ahead 4-2 and won the tiebreaker on his serve and Sock’s missed sitters at the net.

Down 5-4 in the third, Raonic held serve thanks to aces 14 and 15.

In the third set tie-breaker, Raonic sliced a serve out wide to go up 2-1, netted a herky-jerky backhand and flubbed a forehand to trail 2-3, but slice served again to lead 4-3. Sock let Raonic escape his pattern and the American launched an inside-in forehand long to trail 3-5.

At match point, Raonic let the crowd cheer, then bombed down the middle and won it with a sharp volley.

He didn’t play his best, but still won. It was much like most of Raonic’s victories. Raonic wasn’t the better player from the baseline or the net, but he served well enough to squeeze through.

Sampras would be proud.

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