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Milos Raonic makes — and unleashes — history at Wimbledon

Cynthia Lum / Icon Sportswire

Andy Murray — an easy winner in an anticlimactic, lopsided, and utterly forgettable match on Friday at the All-England Club — is focused on Sunday and his date with history at Wimbledon.

Men’s semifinal day belonged to the first match on court. More specifically, it belonged to Milos Raonic.

A person with Serbian roots defeated Roger Federer in the Wimbledon semifinals after all.

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Before the tournament, Novak Djokovic was expected by most to face Federer in the semis, but when Sam Querrey pulled off the upset of the tournament, Raonic became the new favorite to make the semifinals opposite Federer.

This Wimbledon men’s tournament hasn’t obliterated expectations the way the 1996 event did — remember Richard Krajicek and MaliVai Washington in the final? — but as the tennis world prepares for a Raonic-Murray final on Sunday, it must confront how unusual this turn of events really is:

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Murray will carry the torch for the Big Four on Sunday. He’ll also carry the banner for players aged 29 or older — not graybeards in tennis terms, but certainly players with more prime-year yesterdays than tomorrows.

Why is Sunday’s final unusual, then? The tweets above form part of the picture, but there’s so much more to this story. It is interwoven with the history of men’s tennis — not just in this era, but previous ones.

Start with this fact: In the 2010 Wimbledon final, a 24-year-old Tomas Berdych played Rafael Nadal, a member of the Big Four with Federer, Djokovic and Murray. Since that final, only ONCE has a non-Big Four player younger than 28 years and nine months (essentially 29) contested a major final: Both Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori competed for the 2014 U.S. Open title.

That event in New York forms the center of the historical chain connected to Friday’s Raonic-Federer match.

As in the 2014 U.S. Open, Federer played a semifinal against a non-Big Four player with Djokovic out of the tournament. As in the 2014 U.S. Open, Federer entered his semifinal after a five-set quarterfinal in which he saved multiple match points. As in the 2014 U.S. Open, tennis observers entered a men’s semifinal wondering if the “next generation” could step up.

In tennis terms, a generation isn’t 20 years, but something close to five. One person has tried to categorize and sort the generations here. As we’ve seen over the past two years — especially this week, when Cilic plainly flinched on a number of decisive points against Federer — this “next generation” in men’s tennis, the players in their mid-20s (not the young pups who are still learning), has not delivered the goods. The 2014 U.S. Open became an aberration and a tease more than an indicator.

Here’s where a heaping helping of irony enters the equation: For the past two years of Djokovic-powered dominance in men’s tennis, fans of both Federer and Rafael Nadal have lamented what they perceive as a weak field, due to this “next generation’s” weakness. If the men’s tour was deeper, so the argument went, Djokovic wouldn’t rapidly accumulate major titles.

On Friday, Milos Raonic finally did what Federer fans have hoped he would do for some time.

The only problem? He finally stepped up against Federer himself… not Djokovic, the man he WOULD have faced in the quarterfinals (one round ahead of Federer in the semis) if Sam Querrey hadn’t gotten in the way.

Tennis — like life — is strange that way.

The episodic nature of this sport — one match following another in a contained one- or two-week sequence — sets up the next drama. It is fascinating how tennis can simultaneously reaffirm history (2016 Wimbledon becoming all too similar to the 2014 U.S. Open for Federer) while also overturning it (by putting the 25-year-old Raonic in his first major final, an unprecedented event for Canadian tennis, and an extremely rare event for comparatively younger players outside the Big Four).

It’s fascinating that Raonic had to do something he had never done before — come back from two sets down (against David Goffin in the fourth round) — in order to earn this semifinal date with Federer. It’s equally fascinating that Federer had to do something no one had ever done before — beat Marin Cilic after falling behind by two sets (the Croatian was 51-0 before Wednesday) — to secure his spot opposite Raonic on Friday.

It’s fascinating that Raonic — by outlasting Federer — also did something no one has ever done before: Beat the 17-time major champion in a Wimbledon semifinal (10-0 previously).

Most of all, though, it’s quite striking how much this Friday semifinal paralleled Federer’s Wednesday escape versus Cilic… only with the Swiss being on the wrong side of the outcome.

BPI/Imago/Icon Sportswire

BPI/Imago/Icon Sportswire

Some will call it a bug, others a feature of grass-court tennis: Points don’t last as often as they do on other surfaces. The odd bounce of a ball near the chewed-up baseline makes it so much harder to settle into a comfortable topspin rally with high margins and unhurried point construction.

Yes, Djokovic’s total all-court mastery of tennis the past few years — the past few Wimbledons in particular — has made it easy to lose sight of this distinction, but it still exists. There’s a reason why Federer — with his offense-first style, more offensive than any other member of the Big Four — has continued to make Wimbledon finals into his advanced age (three in four years entering this 2016 tournament; he was gunning for “four in five years” on Friday…).

Federer knows better than anyone else that grass-court break and set points are fragile organisms. Huge serves will almost always save them, and mistakes — which lead to breaks conceded or (as a returner) not taken — usually get punished by equal or superior opponents. Federer’s lapse early in the match, serving at 1-2; Raonic’s double fault in the second-set tiebreaker; and Raonic’s wobble late in set three all proved decisive within the course of those sets. This was a typical grass-court match through three sets, and with Federer leading by a set, it was obvious and natural to think the Swiss held the upper hand.

Yet, that’s where the reality of grass-court tennis helped Raonic.

On clay or hardcourts — surfaces which either require more stamina (clay) or punish the body more (hardcourts) — it is more difficult to come back from one or two sets down against a Djokovic or Nadal. Tennis has become too attritional, too grueling, on slow- or medium-paced surfaces — and Djokovic is too good on his return of serve — to expect opponents to complete comebacks against elite players on those surfaces. On grass, though, shorter sets and shorter points often remove an attritional component from the proceedings.

It’s not as though stamina becomes irrelevant to or removed from the battle (Federer did run out of gas against Raonic, playing back-to-back five-setters after getting very little match play over the previous few months), but grass tennis is more centrally a matter of concentration and shotmaking. The serve, the return, the first groundstroke after the serve, and the first groundstroke after the return — the first four shots of any point — acquire more primacy.

Raonic — whose idol is Pete Sampras, as shown in this informative piece from The Guardian, written one month before Friday’s semifinal — is a student of history. He carries himself like Sampras on the court, a poker face with relatively little emotion. He was more vocal on Friday against Federer — the man whose own career breakthrough began with a win over Sampras at Wimbledon — but he still knew, deep inside, that he was not done and dusted when he fell behind, two sets to one.

Many analysts and fans might have written him off, but Raonic knew that grass-court tennis could still keep this match a serving contest, a competition based on concentration in a few key moments. Raonic didn’t have to endlessly run; he just had to increase the sharpness of his reflexes in high-leverage situations.

Federer did the same against Cilic, just as he’s done over many years, in the process of winning seven Wimbledons while going 10-0 in semifinals before his first loss on Friday.

That need for concentration from Raonic was never more evident — or responded to with such fortitude — than at 0-30 at 5-5 in the fourth set.

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Federer was playing his best tennis of the match. Raonic had been largely on his heels for the previous two sets, shaken by his loss of the second-set tiebreaker, which allowed Federer back into the contest. It would have been so easy to think about how a first major final was slipping away, especially after Raonic lost a two-sets-to-one lead in the 2016 Australian Open semis against the man he’ll face on Sunday, Mr. Murray.

Raonic's reach on a forehand volley (not this backhand volley shown above) became the point of his career on Friday against Roger Federer at Wimbledon -- Cynthia Lum / Icon Sportswire

Raonic’s reach on a forehand volley (not this backhand volley shown above) became the point of his career on Friday against Roger Federer at Wimbledon — Cynthia Lum / Icon Sportswire

Raonic knew it, and everyone inside Centre Court knew it: If Raonic dropped serve at 5-5, his day would end in disappointment. (Yes, Federer lost serve in the 12th game of the fourth set, but under a different set of circumstances. More on that in a bit.)

At 0-30, Raonic didn’t face match point, but he faced a point he needed to win in order to avoid 0-40 and triple-break point, a place from which it was always going to be hard to serve three straight bombs without giving Federer at least one good look at a break chance.

Raonic subsequently played the point of his life — that’s not an exaggeration.

Federer maneuvered within the court as reasonably as he could have. He hit a down-the-line shot to Raonic’s forehand side with Raonic near the service line. The shot was well-struck and contained the right balance between margin and aggression. Raonic — whose movement and instincts have improved over the past two years, since a lopsided loss to Federer in a 2014 Wimbledon semifinal which taught him all the right lessons — stretched as fully as he could and nailed the stab volley, sending it crosscourt for a winner.

Instead of 0-40 and a world of hurt, Raonic transformed that 5-all game and — crucially — the comfort level of both players. What happens in one game often spills into the next one in tennis, and as soon as Raonic parried Federer’s thrust at 5-5 in the fourth, he had overcome what turned out to be his most severe challenge.

About that next game: Federer — sloppy in the fourth game of the match and then again in the fifth set, when his body began to break down — really has only one sequence he can or should regret from this semifinal. Serving at 5-6 in the fourth set, up 40-0 against a less-than-great returner, Federer should always hold in that situation. Consecutive double faults represent a spectacular loss of focus for any player, especially one of Federer’s caliber. Moreover, those service lapses certainly emboldened Raonic and gave him more confidence on returns, which he started making at a much greater rate for the rest of the match. Yes, Federer really blew it at 5-6, 40-0 in the fourth…

… but even that lapse has to be placed in context.

Marin Cilic failed to get a single return back on five high-leverage points against Federer on Wednesday. You could say that Federer deserved to win, but that Cilic definitely helped him out. If anything, Friday was a less severe example of Raonic winning with Federer helping.

One could say — since he held three match points and tensed up on all of them — that Cilic truly let his match against Federer get away. Federer, though rightly angry at himself for the 12th game of the fourth set, never reached that same place against Raonic. Moreover, Raonic saved that 0-30 situation at 5-5 in the fourth, and he also saved a break point with a huge serve in a previous game from that set.

Federer should have forced a fourth-set tiebreaker, without question.

That’s not the same thing as saying Federer should have won.

Tennis remains a dialogue. The other player always has a say, and on Friday, Milos Raonic — with the Sampras-like composure he hoped to call forth on this kind of stage since he was an adolescent — finally crossed that particular threshold.

Never having made a major final before; never having beaten Federer at Wimbledon before; never able to give “the next generation” in men’s tennis real hope for the future, Milos Raonic walked over the hot coals of doubt on Friday. When history said he couldn’t come back from a 2-1 (set) deficit, he did. When history said he’d lose his nerve at 5-5, 0-30 in the fourth, he refused to do so.

Roger Federer did overachieve at this Wimbledon, given that he was coming back from injuries, a lack of practice, a relative lack of match play, and all the uncertainties of older age, which make cautiousness — never the athlete’s friend — a necessary part of his internal outlook and day-to-day existence. Yes, making an 11th Wimbledon final was quite attainable for Federer late in that fourth set, but the limitations of his mind and body, one month short of a 35th birthday, never ceased to exist.

What was true against Marin Cilic remained true against Raonic: Federer was going to need just enough help from his opponent to win another five-setter on Centre Court.

The difference: This time, Federer’s “ic” wasn’t scratched.

Raonic learned from the recent past — against Murray in Melbourne this January, and against Federer two years ago in the very same Wimbledon semifinals — but he also learned from past eras. He learned from Pete Sampras how to carry himself in tight situations on Centre Court. He learned from John McEnroe (yes, I think this is a fair statement) that he needs to be fearless in attacking the net and trusting his ability to make decisive, match-altering plays when moving forward within the court.

As a result, men’s tennis has a Wimbledon final which is simultaneously new and unfamiliar in this Golden Era… and yet has McEnroe and Ivan Lendl as opposing coaches in Sunday’s final throwdown.

Milos Raonic made history on Friday against Roger Federer. He also evoked names from tennis’s glorious past.

There’s never a better place to make tennis history than at the tournament where history lives most deeply and vibrantly. With one more winning match, Milos Raonic can join Pete Sampras as the Wimbledon champion he always knew he could be.

Friday, for the first time, he truly showed he’s capable of forging that feat — for the next generation of men’s tennis players and for Canada, but mostly for himself.

Milos Raonic makes — and unleashes — history at Wimbledon





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