The top tour tennis players always have a coach with them. Last year, that was secondary for Canadian star Milos Raonic. In 2017, his most important entourage need was a nurse.
That’s why, when he won his way into the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open here Friday with a 7-5, 6-2, 6-3 victory over another ATP gunslinger, Santa Monica’s Sam Querrey, the victory was especially gratifying. He was able to walk into the interview room afterwards unaided. No crutches, no cane. Not even a limp.
Even though Raonic, once ranked as high as No. 3, won a couple of titles and made it to a couple of quarterfinals of majors last year, his prevailing memory was of rehab rooms and hospital gowns. He was asked to be specific about the 2017 season of his discontent, which pretty much was one long episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“Let’s go down the list,” he said.
“Right abductor, left glute at the beginning of the year. Then I tore my hamstring the beginning of February. After Wimbledon, I had to have wrist surgery. Through the summer, I tried to play a few events, tried to treat the issue. That wasn’t possible. I had surgery just before the U.S. Open. Was hoping to start my offseason in the early weeks of October. No, early weeks of November. And then in November, I had — I hurt my knee. I hurt my meniscus, so I couldn’t play for six seeks. I started training just before the Australian Open.”
It was a mess, then?
“It’s been a catastrophe.”
What Raonic was facing Friday at the famed Indian Wells Tennis Garden was not something nor someone conquerable by a person in ill health. This quarterfinal matchup was a showcase for heavyweights, “Big man versus big man,” as USC’s late and beloved assistant football coach, Marv Goux, used to call the Trojans versus Notre Dame.
Raonic is 6-5 and 220, Querrey 6-6 and 215. They are towers of power, the heavyweight division of tennis. If one of them hit a solid first serve and it was less than 130 miles an hour, they didn’t get it all. This was a high noon shootout in the desert. Literally. The expectation was for lots of aces and lots of framed shots. Expectations were met. Raonic hit 17 aces, Querrey nine. No statistics were kept on framed shots, but fans in the first 10 rows were given warning slips as they entered.
This was not for the meek and mild. The strategy was clear. Hit each shot harder than the previous one. Any baseline rally of more than four strokes would demand big headlines. Drop shots weren’t really drop shots. They were mis-hits. Both approached their games like Albert Pujols approaches the batter’s box. Swing for the fences. Also, both moved along the baseline like Pujols moves toward first base. Think glaciers.
Raonic makes no attempt to hide the obvious.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “my tennis should not be complicated. First chance I have, go forward, try to serve well, and rip the ball when you have the chance.”
Querrey had the match in hand in the first set with a 5-3 lead and a service game at 5-4. But Raonic started returning rockets with warp speed and won four games in a row and the set. Querrey was the better rocket man in the second set, but Raonic capitalized on his first break chance, at 3-4 in the deciding set, running around his backhand on a second serve and hitting a perfect inside-out forehand that Querrey couldn’t reach. Querrey managed two break points with Raonic serving at 5-4, but Raonic saved those and hit a cross-court forehand winner on his second match point.
Raonic will play Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, another oft-injured player, in one semifinal Saturday. The other will be Roger Federer versus Borna Coric. Del Potro beat Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany by slowly working his way back into the match after losing the first set. The score was 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Del Potro was on the verge of joining the elite of men’s tennis after his stunning upset of Federer in a five-set, U.S. Open final thriller in 2009. He got to No. 4 in the world, but then seriously injured his wrist and has worked his way through several surgeries to get back into the top 10 at No. 8. With the injury history of Raonic and Del Potro, tournament officials might ponder replacing linesmen with paramedics for their Saturday semifinal.
Del Potro is a gentle giant, 6-foot-6 and highly popular.
“I really appreciate the love I have here,” he said, in his on-court interview. He also said later that he feels as if he has nothing to lose after years of struggling through pain and rehabbing.