July 8, 2016
A defiant Milos Raonic has reached his first Grand Slam final after refusing to succumb to the brilliance of Roger Federer.
The quiet Canadian admitted that he had done something very special as the enormity of his achievement sunk in.
He said: ‘It was an incredible comeback for me. I just found a little opening and managed to turn it around.
‘It will be a bigger impact in Canada if I can win the final. That’s what I’ve got to do. It’s a great feeling. I’ve had the best match in my history and my career and I’ve earned my first Grand Slam final.’
When it mattered, age counted. Raonic looked fresher towards the end of the fourth set and even handled the big points better, something no one expected after the big man appeared to be crumbling not long before.
Now that elusive 18th Grand Slam and eighth Wimbledon title appears destined to remain just beyond the world’s most loved tennis player.
It was an amazing achievement just to reach the semi-final, when there had been so many doubts about the brilliant veteran’s fitness going into the tournament.
But what has helped Federer through times of trouble is his inner strength, and above all his refusal to beat himself up when he wastes clear opportunities. It’ll be hard for Roger to resist the temptation to kick himself a little after this one, though.
With the second set seemingly nearing its conclusion, for example, Raonic saved no fewer than four set points at 4-5 down. It was a monumental piece of defiance, and might have dealt a player with less inner calm than Federer a severe blow.
Sheer bravery held sway in those dangerous moments for the Canadian, while Federer tightened and became strangely tentative when one more piece of aggression would have helped him level up the sets. It was frustrating for Federer.
In the first set, Raonic had been the more solid of the two, his huge serve and thumping forehand giving him a winning foundation.
For all his elegance and talent, Federer’s backhand had wobbled at times. And he was broken despite being 30-0 up, something of a rarity in Roger’s career, though worse was to come. He knew he was facing a mini-crisis at 2-4 down.
Raonic held his nerve to close out 6-3. And as soon as Roger fell a set behind, he must have known that he had to win the next or face the consequences.
Surely another five-set marathon was beyond a man who was pushing thirty-five, especially against such a quality opponent, particularly from two sets behind? He must have known it deep down.
And that’s what made Roger’s failure to close out any of those set points so perplexing. Instead it was all down to the second-set tie-break. How easily could Federer put those missed opportunities behind him?
Who would handle the pressure better? Realistically, Federer simply had to emerge from the all-important breaker triumphant in order to keep his hopes alive.
First to crack was Raonic, who double-faulted at 3-3. Could Federer take advantage this time? A massive serve suggested he could. Another aggressive spurt gave him three set points at 6-3.
This time he only needed one. Millions of Federer fanatics breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the breaker. There was no mountain to climb now. Instead he had a level playing field on which to demonstrate his art.
Before that could happen, Raonic went off for a natural break and Federer stood out on court, hands on hips, looking angry at the delay.
Nevertheless, the third set went with serve until, at 3-3 in games, Raonic hit his seventh double fault. Roger followed up with a wonderful cross-court winner and he took his second break point chance of the game when Raonic completely miss-hit from the baseline.
The big North American seemed to be starting to crumble and netted a simple volley in the very next game, followed by two careless forehands. Federer had consolidated at 5-3. Raonic was losing patience with himself. Roger closed out 6-4.
Once again Federer could have been cursing himself when, at 2-2 in the fourth, he had three break points and couldn’t make any of them pay. Raonic nudged ahead at 3-2 but Federer let the immediate past go and stayed in the moment to hold under pressure.
Raonic was firing down 144mph serves but they weren’t all going to land in the right place. Even so, Raonic was summoning fresh strength and edged ahead once more at 4-3.
Unfazed, Federer took care of business on his own serve, knowing that any further demonstration of weakness from his opponent could end the match.
But it was Roger who was serving to stay in the set at 4-5. At 15-30 he risked the fifth set he didn’t want. Federer stayed cool and withstood the onslaught. The set seemed to be rolling on towards another tie-break.
Could Federer break to avoid the lottery? He took a 0-30 lead on the younger man’s serve but Raonic held firm with the help of an extraordinary stretching volley.
Federer was 40-0 ahead in the next game but inexplicably served up two double faults. Suddenly he was fending off set points as Raonic stepped up his level unexpectedly.
Roger saved the first two but played into the hands of Milos on the third. He was passed on his approach and the set was over. Just when he had looked down and out, Raonic was suddenly level again, having taken the fourth 7-5.
Federer took treatment, his muscles feeling tight. Raonic went off for another break. Before long they would pass the three-hour mark. Would Federer’s body withstand the rigours of another marathon? If ever he had cause to kick himself, it was now.
Federer fell as he came off second best in an amazing rally at 2-1 to Raonic. His ankle seemed to give way and he took time out. When he returned, the older man was facing break point. He responded with two crushing forehands.
Raonic hit back, sensing that Federer’s body was beginning to complain. Another Federer double fault, another break point. Once again, Roger aimed his attempted winner straight at Raonic with the rest of the court gaping.
It cost him dear. Despite a valiant effort to stay in the point at the net and increasingly loud shrieks from the crowd, Federer was finally passed once more and broken at 1-3. It looked like the beginning of the end for the living legend.
The pressure had got to him as his body ached. He had wanted another tilt at the title so much, he had tightened in moments when he needed to relax. It can happen to the best of them – as we witnessed today.
At 5-3 ahead, Raonic let his booming serve take over. Federer had nothing left in the tank and you had to feel sorry for him. In desperation, Federer finally hit long and it was over.
He looked utterly devastated, as though he knew his last realistic chance of Grand Slam glory had gone. It was heart-wrenching stuff. But Raonic has earned his right to win a Slam and Federer has had so many moments in the sun.
It felt like a changing of the guard as they left the stage. Maybe it is. The magnificent Roger Federer cannot go on forever. Meanwhile Milos Raonic has come of age.