Rafael Nadal takes on Milos Raonic today in the quarter-finals of the 2017 Australian Open.
Nadal will have the opportunity to avenge his Brisbane defeat to Raonic when the two meet on Wednesday – with a place in the semifinals of the Australian Open on the line.
With Roger Federer into the semifinals already and no Novak Djokovic in Nadal’s half of the draw – the winner of the quarterfinal against Raonic will meet either Grigor Dimitrov or David Goffin, a less intimidating prospect – the possibility of a ‘Fedal’ final, the first time the two would have met in a Grand Slam final since the 2011 French Open, is already electrifying Melbourne Park.
But there are a few obstacles in the way of the Fedal reunion in the final, and the first of them is Milos Raonic, the highest seed remaining in the draw after the exits of Djokovic and Andy Murray, who will be determined to end Nadal’s run and take advantage of the opportunity in the draw himself instead.
Raonic’s stellar 2016 season saw him shake off the injury problems of 2015 and, from starting the year as world no. 14, establish himself as a solid top-five player, winning Brisbane, finishing runner-up at Indian Wells and Queen’s and shining on the Grand Slam stage, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open and finishing runner-up to Andy Murray at Wimbledon after beating Federer in the semifinals. After finishing his year by pushing Murray all the way in the semifinals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, Raonic suffered a blow during the off-season when Carlos Moya left his coaching team to join Nadal’s, although the Canadian – never shy of a high-profile hire – brought former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek onboard in December.
Raonic may have felt he achieved some measure of revenge for Moya’s defection when he and Nadal met in the quarterfinals of the Brisbane International and Raonic, though he lost the first set, surged back as Nadal lost his grip on what looked like a solid victory for the Spanish player. The Canadian eventually won that one, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, only to lose to an inspired Grigor Dimitrov in the next round, and his Melbourne campaign has been overshadowed by a flu-like illness, involving running a temperature and lack of energy. Despite that, Raonic was able to beat Dustin Brown and Sydney champion Gilles Muller in straight sets before facing two similar and underrated challengers – Gilles Simon and Roberto Bautista Agut – both of whom took a set from the world no. 3 before he won in four to reach the quarterfinals.
"I have the energy. Still don't necessarily feel at full capacity. I have energy now. I can go about my days normally. Sort of on the tail end of the recovery," Raonic said.
This is, to put it mildly, not remotely ideal preparation to face Nadal, one of the fittest-when-fit and most dynamic competitors around. Feeling even slightly lethargic, or struggling for energy, or even carrying the burden of having played matches while ill, could be all the advantage Nadal needs to win this quarterfinal.
On the other hand, not that it’s encouraging news for Raonic, it’s questionable how much of an advantage Nadal even needs. Despite Raonic’s recent win over him, Nadal still owns a commanding 6-2 advantage in the head-to-head – Raonic’s other win came at Indian Wells in 2015, with Nadal winning almost all of their other matches in straight sets.
And Nadal has been playing well. Cruising through Florian Mayer and Marcos Baghdatis, Nadal outlasted a storm of power hitting from 19-year-old Sascha Zverev in five sets in the third round before beating Gael Monfils 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 after being decidedly the better man for almost all the match. For the first two sets he overpowered Monfils with his pounding forehand and raced around the court like his feet had wings; he suffered a lapse in the third set, his forehand suddenly dropping short, and Monfils took advantage with some dazzling tennis of his own. But in the fourth set, despite a break from Monfils, Nadal slowly but surely reeled the French player in and crushed his resistance solidly. And afterwards, he even ventured a joke during the interview with Jim Courier – a sure sign of some level of comfort.
Nadal summed up the experience of playing Raonic when asked to look ahead to the fourth-round clash:
"He's an opponent that make you feel that you're playing with a lot of pressure all the time because his serve is huge and he's playing very aggressive from the baseline. So going to be a very tough match, no?
"But I hope to be ready for it. I need to be very focused with my serve and play aggressive. If I am not playing aggressive, then I am dead, because he plays aggressive. You know finally he going to have chances on the return because he decides to play with going for the shots, so..."
Obviously, Raonic’s serve is huge but it can also let him down and when it does, there’s little chance of him rebuilding his game from elsewhere. Conversely, Nadal’s serve is the most vulnerable aspect of his game, particularly these days: Raonic needs to have a plan to attack it and he needs to keep it under pressure consistently while protecting his own. If he can make Nadal spend much more time delivering his serve while reeling off quickfire service games of his own, that kind of pressure will tell, but it will take a strong returning performance from Raonic in addition to some of his best serving. In the end it’s much more likely that Nadal’s pounding groundstrokes from the baseline and his passing shots in particular will wear down, then shatter the off-colour Canadian’s resistance. Expect Nadal to come through in three or four sets.