Milos Raonic barges in on dream semifinals with upset of Rafael Nadal

Milos Raonic barges in on dream semifinals with upset of Rafael Nadal
Milos Raonic swats a backhand during his three-set victory over Rafael Nadal on Friday at the Paribas Open. (Paul Buck / EPA)

It was a done deal in the desert. Then it wasn't.

World-ranking Nos. 1 and 4, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, made it to the semifinals a day earlier. Then, No. 2 Roger Federer took apart Tomas Berdych like a biology student working on a frog.

Friday at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells brought another day of gorgeous sunshine, gently swaying palm trees and lots of tennis fans in a state-of-the-art stadium. Anticipation was about as big as the 16,000-plus crowd.

The last time the Big Four of men's tennis had all made it to the semifinals was the 2012 Australian Open. The last time the top four seeded men's players had achieved that at this Indian Wells event was 1987.

So, all that remained was for No. 3 Rafael Nadal to do what he has always done against Milos Raonic, a 24-year-old Canadian, who is 6 feet 5 and serves like it. Nadal had faced Raonic five times previously and won all five. In those matches, Raonic had won a set. Just one.

A Federer-Nadal match — anywhere, any time — gets the blood boiling in tennis fans. They have played 33 times, Nadal winning 23 of those. In finals, Nadal is 14-6.

They played for 4 hours 48 minutes in a 2008 Wimbledon final that many think was the singular match of all time. Nadal won in five sets and ended Federer's 65-match, grass-court winning streak. Several other of their remaining 32 matches also make tennis fans' top 10.

Federer certainly did his part here Friday. His 6-4, 6-0 walk in the park over poor, stunned Berdych ranked with his best Muhammad Ali tennis. When he plays like this, Federer floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. His shots don't hit lines, they tick them and explode. He gets to shots before shots get to him.


He will turn 34 in August. Tennis journalists have stopped asking him about age. The conclusion is obvious. Everybody else gets old. Federer apparently went along with Ponce de Leon on the apocryphal exploration trip to Florida in the early 1500s to find the Fountain of Youth. De Leon didn't find it. Federer did.

He's always been almost as good a diplomat as a player.

"I'm just very happy I'm playing at the level I'm playing," he said, "and that I can put myself in contention to win almost any tournament."

Berdych laughed when asked if there were something he could have done to turn around the match's momentum.

"No," Berdych said. "He was doing pretty much everything perfect."

So, in the second match, was Nadal, against a vastly improved Raonic. He broke serve at 1-1 of the first set and ran it out for a 6-4 victory.

Then he got a break point in the first game of the second set, two more at 2-2 and one more at 4-4. Nadal plays, and always has, like a bulldog clamped down on your pants leg. But Raonic, shockingly, kept shaking loose.

Once it got to the tiebreaker and Raonic continued to shake loose, there was a feeling of the turning of the tide. In the tiebreaker, Nadal had three match points and won none of them. In Vegas, you could get great odds against that ever happening to the most determined, focused player in the sport.

On the first match point, Raonic hit a 134-mph serve and followed it with a big ground stroke. The next one, at 8-7, Raonic hit an overhead off a Nadal lob from the baseline. Too bad they didn't have the speed gun on it.

Then, at 10-9, Nadal hit into the net.

Raonic won on his third set point, when Nadal netted another shot. And so, the final set began with the feeling of, oops, this could very well happen.

Raonic started his service game for the match, at 6-5, with a 146-mph ace. At 30-15, he hit one 130, Nadal challenged and lost to the Hawkeye camera. Now, it was Raonic's match point.

Which was achieved, for the 4-6, 7-6 (10), 7-5 victory with a 143-mph first serve that set up Nadal's final wide shot.

The Spaniard with 14 major titles to his name, three shy of Federer, packed up, whirled at midcourt to wave to and acknowledge the fans, and even stopped to sign some autographs. In the stands, the Canadian flags were waving in all corners. Raonic, in a nod to the many snowbirds on hand, called this Southern California desert "as close to home as I can get."

Nadal, who still feels he is in recovery mode after missing months of last season because of a wrist injury and appendicitis surgery, said, "I'm happy with the way I played. I'm happy with the way I competed ¿ I'm not happy that I lost."

Raonic said, "This isn't where it ends ... It's always, OK, what is next?"

What is next is still a pretty good show: Djokovic vs. Murray, Federer vs. the interloper.

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes