No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic received a spirited challenge from No. 8 Milos Raonic in a 2014 French Open quarterfinal match Tuesday, but the spectacular Serb's big-match experience shined through in a 7-5, 7-6(5), 6-4 victory.
The win puts Djokovic through to the semifinals, where he will face a familiar foe in the form of Ernests Gulbis, according to Steve Tignor of Tennis.com:
Old academy-mates Novak Djokovic & Ernests Gulbis will play in the semis. Djokovic leads head to head 4-1. #RG14— Steve Tignor (@SteveTignor) June 3, 2014
There was plenty of intrigue surrounding Tuesday's clash after Djokovic and Raonic's meeting in the Rome Masters semifinals in May. Djokovic won that match, but Raonic pushed it to three sets and proved his ability to compete with one of the world's best.
Raonic's clay-court tennis has come a long way in recent years. It has never been his preferred surface, but this match marked his first career Grand Slam quarterfinal. Raonic surprised himself by making it to this point, but he seemed quite confident in his level of play entering the contest, per ATPWorldTour.com:
It's a good thing. If you asked me would I have ever thought that the first one would come at the French Open, I probably would not have answered that way, but I'm happy about it. I'm very happy with the level I'm playing (at this year), and I think it's just showing in the results. I think that's just a consequence of all the work I have been putting in.
Playing against a competitor the caliber of Djokovic is always a major challenge, but Raonic had even more pressure than usual on his shoulders. Fellow Canadian Eugenie Bouchard reached the semifinals in the women's draw by beating Carla Suarez Navarro earlier in the day, which gave Raonic the opportunity to truly make history, according to NHL Network's David Amber:
Milos Raonic now with chance to make this the greatest day in Canadian tennis history...Djokovic standing in his way— David Amber (@DavidAmber) June 3, 2014
Raonic and Djokovic are two of the best servers in tennis, so it came as little surprise that they traded holds for the majority of the first set. As accurately pointed out by Damien Cox of the Toronto Star, Raonic's key to success would be finding a way to break Nole:
Raonic's challenge, as always, will be to get anywhere on Djoker's serve. Played him close in Rome, but that was 2/3 sets.— Damien Cox (@DamoSpin) June 3, 2014
Unfortunately for the big Canadian by way of Montenegro, he was unable to shake the world's No. 2 player. Raonic did manage to match Djoker hold for hold through the match's first 10 games, but he couldn't come through with an opportunity to send the first set into a tiebreak.
A tiebreak against Raonic would have been risky business for Djokovic due to his big serve, but Djokovic managed to come through in a big moment, per Tennis Now:
Djokovic wins the last two--and biggest two--points of the set to break Raonic and close it out 7-5. Clutch playing from the Serb. #RG14— TennisNow (@Tennis_Now) June 3, 2014
Things could have easily gotten hairy for Djokovic had he not found a way to break Raonic, but he changed the match in a big way by doing so, according to ESPN's Brad Gilbert:
That was huge 4point swing for Djoker and boom 1set to the good vs Missile— Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) June 3, 2014
Serving played a major role in the first set, as both players thrived on their first serves, but second serves were a different story. While Djoker won 70 percent of his second-serve points, Raonic won a mere 25 percent of his.
Raonic also beat himself in many ways, as he made double the number of unforced errors Djokovic did with 18. Djokovic's ability to play largely mistake-free tennis is what makes him so good, and that was on full display in the opening set.
The second set predictably featured more of the same on serve. The late break from Djokovic in the first didn't appear to shake Raonic's confidence whatsoever, as the Canadian underdog continued to serve effectively and remain in lockstep with Djokovic.
He faced the same situation that he faltered in during the first set as he served to force a tiebreak. Raonic made no mistake this time, however, as he held and kept himself in the set.
Raonic generally thrives in tiebreaks, but the crafty Djokovic proved to be too much for him to handle. Djokovic simply played the big points better and was able to win a couple points off Raonic's serve, which allowed him to come through with a 7-5 triumph in the tiebreak.
Things could have gone differently for Raonic in the first two sets had he won a couple more key points, but he fell just short:
Raonic close-but-not-quite-yet so far. Djokovic up 75 76(5). #RG14— Steve Tignor (@SteveTignor) June 3, 2014
Raonic has clearly gotten to a point where he can push a top player like Djokovic and give him some nervous moments, according to Arash Madani of Sportsnet, but he hasn't quite reached that elite level yet:
It's remarkable how Milos Raonic has closed the gap with Novak Djokovic since last September's Davis Cup. So close, but not quite there yet.— Arash Madani (@ArashMadani) June 3, 2014
Despite all the effort exerted by Raonic in the first two sets, he continued to fight in the third. He saved three break points on his first serve of the third set, but Djokovic ultimately stood firm and earned the massive break, per Dan King of The Sun:
Djoko won the tiebreak and has just broken Raonic at the start of the third. Gulbis also two sets and a break up.— Dan King (@DanKing_1974) June 3, 2014
In addition to solving Raonic's serve, Djokovic never allowed him to gain much confidence while returning, according to Roland Garros on Twitter:
That break demoralized Raonic, who struggled to stay competitive for the remainder of the set. Djoker would reel off three more games in a row to go up 4-0 with a double break. That lead proved to be insurmountable for Raonic, but he continued to scrap until the bitter end.
Raonic held serve down 5-1 and then managed to do something that he couldn't muster all match long. He finally broke Djokovic to make it 5-3, which prompted Nick Nemeroff of Tennis View Magazine to applaud his effort:
Raonic fighting very hard here. Could have gone down easy at 5-1.— Nick Nemeroff (@NNemeroff) June 3, 2014
The big Canadian consolidated that break with another hold to put all the pressure on Djokovic as he clung to a 5-4 lead. In the end, Djokovic showed nerves of steel by holding when he needed to and putting his game opponent away 6-4 in the third.
Analysts tabbed Djokovic as the co-favorite along with eight-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal entering this tournament. With that in mind, it doesn't come as a shock to anyone that Djoker has made it to the semifinals with relative ease.
It would be very easy for Djokovic to look ahead to a possible final battle with Rafa since that is the match all tennis fans are anticipating, but Nole can't afford to fall into that trap.
How will Djokovic fare in the 2014 French Open?
He has a very tricky opponent on his hands in the form of Gulbis. The 18th-seeded Latvian is enjoying the best Grand Slam performance of his career, and it can be argued that he has never played better tennis.
Gulbis has always been supremely talented but has struggled with consistency. After beating Roger Federer in the fourth round and Tomas Berdych in the quarters, however, he seemingly has all the confidence in the world.
Djokovic holds a 4-1 career record against Gulbis with his one loss coming back in 2009. Djokovic and Gulbis have met at Roland Garros before; Djoker scored a straight-set victory in 2008.
Both players are very different now than they were back then, but the result should be similar. Djokovic has never had a better opportunity to win the French Open after knocking off Nadal in the Rome Masters, and he won't squander his opportunity by losing to Gulbis.
Djokovic and Nadal are still very much on a collision course, and Djokovic's gutsy performance against Raonic suggests that he has the goods necessary to give Nadal problems in Paris.
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