Murray passes Raonic to win Wimbledon


Big serves get the hype but passing shots often win at Wimbledon. Think Borg passing McEnroe, or Federer passing Roddick. Great returners and passers such as Agassi, Nadal and Djokovic all won by beating bigger servers off the ground.

Add Andy Murray to that pantheon of passers.

Murray beat Milos Raonic by taking advantage of Raonic’s risky attempt to attack the net — a lost art in men’s tennis.

There’s a reason why only Raonic and Feliciano Lopez — among top players — repeatedly attack the net. (Even excellent volleyers such as Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal still favor the baseline.) Athletic baseliners such as Novak Djokovic and Murray are simply too good at passing shots. They have too much accuracy, too much feel, to be troubled by an approach shot or set-up volley. Speedy retriever David Goffin also took the first two sets off Raonic in the round of 16, and Jack Sock had two tie-breakers with Raonic. Unsung Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas ate Raonic alive at the net at the French Open in Paris. 






Yet Raonic, inspired by his idol Pete Sampras, remains committed to reviving the serve-and-volley game.


It’s live by the sword, die by sword.

The tactic worked against the offensive-minded Federer in the Wimbledon semi-final, but it backfired against Murray in Melbourne, Queen’s and the Wimbledon final. Raonic lost 28 points at net against Murray and hit only 8 aces. 

At Wimbledon, Murray increasingly read Raonic’s serves and game plan, which was too predictable and inflexible. Murray saw Raonic approaching down the middle and made him pay for it. He drilled shots at Raonic to get in his head. He lobbed to force Raonic to come in slower and further from the net. With Raonic failing to close off angles at the net, Murray dipped slow, soft passing shots at Raonic’s wings. He repeatedly punished Raonic for rushing from too far back, or hitting short approach shots or weak first volleys. He made Raonic look like the volleyer he was a couple of years ago before coaches Riccardo Piatti, Carlos Moya and John McEnroe helped him improve his positioning, shot selection and execution.

Raonic was befuddled. Do I hit a volley or a half-volley? Do I hit a drop volley or a stinger?

Weaker strokes break down under pressure, even when it’s not your first Wimbledon final. Raonic pushed too many volleys, and he couldn’t get his hands around body blows. Unable to settle into a baseline rhythm, Raonic netted multiple backhand slices, never his best shot. He also over-struck inside-out forehands — usually his favorite shot.

And, with Murray nailing backhand returns deep, Raonic won a lower percentage of first than second serves, a bizarre stat.

One of the best returners ever, Murray solved Raonic’s A-game — big serves and daring net rushes — and Raonic didn’t deploy a Plan B or C.

Was this a tactical error? Raonic loves pace, but so does Murray. His counterpunching game feeds off absorbing pace and forcing the aggressor to take increasingly bigger risks. 

Raonic could have changed tactics. He could have reverted to the baseline power game that helped him reach world number 4 and also beat Murray in Barcelona, Tokyo and Indian Wells. He could have given Murray a taste of his own medicine, as Borna Coric did by puffing and retrieving in Dubai 2015. Novak Djokovic, who repeatedly beats Murray in slams, often uses slices and drop shots to force Murray uncomfortably into net and other offensive positions. But Raonic doesn’t seem to believe he has the speed, footwork and consistency to match Murray in longer rallies, and he simply doesn’t have Murray’s feel for drop shots, lobs and passing shots. 

Raonic stuck with his guns, held serve, and forced the second and third sets into tie-breakers. As one-sided as the match often seemed, Raonic was only a tie-breaker and early 4th set break from seizing momentum and turning the match his way, especially given Murray’s penchant for distractions and self-destruction.

But Murray played the tie-breakers the same way as the earlier games, beating Raonic with superior movement and scintillating passing shots. Murray kept his foot on the gas, and never gave Raonic a sliver of light through an open window as Federer did by double-faulting twice at 5-6 in the fourth set. In summary, Murray, not Raonic, was the one to impose his game and his presence upon the final, and he won 6-4, 7-6, 7-6.

Raonic, known for willingness to train, improve and employ the best coaches or consultants, needs to expand his options. He worked hard to add body serves, volleys, and better backhand returns to his arsenal. To consistently win majors, Raonic will need to master slice backhands, lobs, and particularly drop shots, which Federer notably developed to win on clay. 

Djokovic and Murray are masters at pushing back opponents with looping ground strokes, drawing them forward with drop shots, then finishing them off with lobs or deft “mini-tennis” angled put-aways. Murray beat Raonic at “mini-tennis” nearly every time. He drew Raonic in, forced him to hit weak volleys, then drilled the ball at a paralyzed Raonic’s hip. Improving his mini-tennis game will improve Raonic’s overall game.  

In the post-match presser, Raonic said he was too passive early, and he praised Murray’s forehand, especially from mid-baseline. “He was playing much better than me off the baseline … He was being aggressive when he had the chance … trying not to give me two looks at a point.”

Crying in relief and joy after winning his second Wimbledon singles title, Murray praised Raonic for winning a “great match” against Federer. He also called Raonic’s team of coaches and trainers “polite” and “well-mannered”. “It’s not always the case”, quipped Murray, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Raonic, who has been smiling and laughing on court more lately, can take pride in reaching his first slam final, and he’ll likely win a slam soon enough, perhaps even in New York. He did well to serve out of trouble and save break points, both against Federer and Murray. He came back from two sets down to beat Goffin in the round of 16. He showed mental fortitude, and even his grass court “consultant” McEnroe said Raonic showed another gear that nobody thought he had.

“Who would have thought that Canadian tennis would be above American tennis,” said McEnroe on ESPN. Raonic has earned his place at the Grand Slam table. He’s made correct adjustments and additions to his game throughout his career. With better drop-shots, lobs, backhand slices and stinging volleys, he seems destined to finally win a slam.

As Raonic said after the Wimbledon final: “I’m going to make sure, as these courts are green, that I’m going to do everything I can to be back here.”

(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media, all rights reserved).