In the 2016 Wimbledon semifinals, Milos Raonic stood near the precipice of defeat late in the fourth set against Roger Federer.
The Canadian, trailing two sets to one, had to fend off a few break points to stay in the hunt. He then had to stare down a 0-30 deficit when serving at 5-5 in the fourth to give himself a chance to win a fourth-set tiebreaker and earn a fifth stanza. Even when leading 6-5, Raonic couldn’t have felt too comfortable. Though he was on serve, and though he’s been very good in tiebreakers this year, the idea of playing a handful of points against Federer on Centre Court Wimbledon — just to survive into a fifth set — wasn’t exactly ideal.
When Raonic won the first set of that semifinal, he hoped that he could take control of the match, but in the next two and a half sets, he ceded control of the run of play. Federer has won many tiebreakers in hugely tense situations over the years. When the Swiss gained a 40-0 lead on his serve in that 12th game of the fourth set, victory was not at hand… but a tiebreaker sure was. Federer was about to put himself in a position where a few concentrated minutes of quality tennis would carry him to another Wimbledon final.
How does this relate to Milos Raonic’s exit from the U.S. Open on Wednesday afternoon? We’re getting to the heart of the matter.
Federer double-faulted on consecutive points to lift Raonic to deuce. Given that timely bit of assistance, Raonic pounced on an opportunity and broke Federer to force a fifth set. At the changeover following the end of the set, Federer received medical attention. Early in the fifth set, Federer suffered a fall which — he said after the match — scared him, because he hadn’t fallen like that before. Though no structural damage was revealed upon further examination, Federer felt he had to end his 2016 season so that he could fully rehabilitate and not take the court in fear of the next fall, the next tweak, the next act of betrayal from his body.
The core points of this brief recounting:
1) Raonic carried himself through a difficult period in a match which was flowing toward his opponent. He showed more perseverance than he’d ever shown before. Raonic exposed himself to the world — in the past, that exposure wasn’t so kind, but on that Friday at the All-England Club, he revealed a heart that had grown a few sizes. Even if Federer fans were disappointed with the result, they had to admire Raonic for showing a new level of toughness.
It’s what we want to see from sportsmen — not necessarily that they win, but that they compete at a great height, pushing through pressure and forcing their opponent to be great in order to beat them.
2) Federer, though beaten by the better player, had to confront the reality that had he tightened up his game at the end of the fourth set, getting off the court without need of a fifth set, he would not have endured that fall. Perhaps he’d have played in the Olympics. Perhaps he’d be playing at this U.S. Open. Injuries are always cruel, but sometimes, they occur after a match should have been — or could have been — won. Though Federer was physically diminished in that fifth set, Raonic earned his way to that point when lesser men — and lesser versions of Raonic from previous years — would not have lasted that long.
There was, ultimately, a sense of clarity at the end of Raonic-Federer. The younger, less experienced player — who had never made a major final, never registered a next-level win which at least suggested (if not declared) an emergent greatness — found something new inside himself. The match contained the triumph of the human spirit, and the agony of defeat for a proud champion who regretted a brief lapse which cost him dearly… and then led to an injury scare he did not want or deserve.
That is the theater of sports in all its compelling richness — imperfect, perhaps (it would have been pleasant to not see Federer fall in the fifth set), but owning the knowledge that the winner earned his win.
We did not get that same clarity from Raonic’s second-round loss to Ryan Harrison at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center on an oppressively humid day in New York.
Raonic could have won the second set to take a two-set lead over Harrison. It’s true that — somewhat like Federer’s failure to serve out the 12th game of the fourth set at Wimbledon, and then put away the fourth set in the breaker — Raonic could have been more efficient and maybe put himself in a better position to win.
That viewpoint is understandable.
It is also, however, incomplete and ultimately inapplicable to this match.
Raonic’s body — first the wrist, and then the legs — betrayed him early in the third set. Even if Raonic had taken a two-set lead, the diminishment of his physical capacities set in before he would have approached the finish line. As it was, in a match tied at one set apiece, Raonic still took the lead in the third set, but he couldn’t run the race. It might even have been better had he retired instead of thinking he owed it to Harrison to play a match to its natural conclusion. (There is no natural conclusion when one player is as hampered as Raonic was at the end.)
What happened in Harrison-Raonic is that the tennis community learned nothing about Milos Raonic… unlike the Wimbledon semifinals. Raonic came to New York intent on making his first U.S. Open semifinal and final. He flew to the Big Apple with one major hardcourt semifinal already on his resume in 2016 (the Australian Open). Interestingly — and ironically — enough, Raonic got injured in the fourth set of that semifinal against Andy Murray, when leading two sets to one. Raonic didn’t lose that match because he was inferior as a practitioner of tennis; he lost because he got hurt. Murray did what he needed to do, but as soon as an athlete becomes markedly compromised in the competitive arena, the event ceases to be a pursuit of excellence. It becomes strictly attritional, solely about survival.
Tennis is magnificent when attritional aspects blend with dimensions of technique and performance and poise under pressure, but when it’s solely about the body breaking down, the notion of a “clash of titans” or a “test of wills” ceases to exist.
This is the emptiness of injuries, and this — more than the misery of Milos Raonic — is the sadness of 2016. The injury-strewn nature of this year doesn’t take away from the greatness of its champions or their marvelous feats. It’s a downer simply because we’d like to see the best go against the best… or at least for the best to have a chance to play the best because of merit, not because someone’s body broke down.
It wasn’t bad for tennis that Victoria Azarenka didn’t beat Serena Williams at the French Open. It was bad for tennis that Azarenka never had the chance to do so, win or lose.
It wasn’t bad for tennis that Novak Djokovic didn’t play Rafael Nadal in the French Open semifinals; Djokovic and Dominic Thiem played a quality semifinal. However, it would have been so much more contextually satisfying if Djokovic had played Thiem after Thiem beat Nadal, not after Thiem advanced because of an injury to Rafa.
The truly immortal sports moments of our lives flow from seeing the best play the best. When a top-10 tennis player gets injured — something we’ve seen over and over again in 2016 — we’re robbed of that fundamental possibility. We’re also robbed of the ability to say, “Milos Raonic (or any other player) really answered (or failed to answer) the challenge of the U.S. Open.”
It’s not a fun event when someone such as Garbine Muguruza crashes out of the U.S. Open in the second round — as she did on Wednesday — but in the absence of injury, we can at least ponder and study the mystery of her “here one moment, gone the next” game. It might not be pleasant, but it’s a compelling part of the mental drama of sports.
When a competition isn’t decided by mental toughness — or who had the superior serve, or who played better ad-court defense and did a better job of taking the backhand down the line — we’re left with a hollow shell of an event. Two competitors did enter, and one left with his name still on the bracket sheet in the next round, but we didn’t learn anything. We didn’t gain anything.
This is the emptiness of witnessing and absorbing a tennis injury. Milos Raonic is merely the latest representation of how difficult a year 2016 has been on the professional tennis tours.