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Sporting Life

Injured leg the cause of brave Raonic's broken heart

The calmest man at this Open smashed a racket yesterday in frustration and for once sympathy was the appropriate response. At his greatest moment, an often-injured player found his body in mutiny again. Closing in on a final, two sets to one ahead, Milos Raonic's leg betrayed him. Sport broke his heart and then Andy Murray rightly trod all over it. You might say bad luck, you might say Murray wore Raonic down, you might say he wasn't fit enough for the stress of a five-set, two-week Grand Slam, you might say this is sport.

You might also say that Raonic earned a new affection yesterday as he ran and leapt and lunged on limping leg. Winning and losing we see all the time, it is spirit that embeds itself in the memory. Behind the mask he wears, everyone now knows rests a competitor of character. Later in the press room, he softly said: "This is probably the most heartbroken I have felt on court."

Raonic may have gone home, but he's left us something memorable: In his orange socks, orange shoes, orange sleeve, he is tennis' groovy retro guy. He thinks the net is a cool place to hang out. He believes serve-volley, now and then, is a swell idea. In a horizontal game, this dude went vertical. Forward into the court and up in the air to dunk. It was so very 1990s of him.

Of course that old Federer fellow does some neat ninja stuff at the net, but it's just nice to see a young chap, only 25, using it as a tactic.

On the second point of the match yesterday, Raonic was at the net. All 196cm of him. Hello Andy. It didn't always work and at set point in the second set he flubbed a volley when following in a serve. It didn't deter him. He was committed to his craft.


Andy Murray fought his way back into the semi-final against Milos Raonic after the Canadian led by two sets to one. The Scot's 4-6, 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-2 victory pits him against Novak Djokovic, who is in his sixth Australian Open final. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Till Raonic's leg slowed him down and reduced his serving leap, this match was fun - a Canadian adventurer often coming forward and a Scottish baseliner resisting his advances. In a sport whose repetitive baseline bickering can bring on a coma, here was a passing advertisement for diversity.

So was Murray, who came armed with his regular scowl yet also his famed stubbornness. He's one of tennis' most intelligent men and also among its most industrious. A boxing fan, he sometimes loses on points but is always game for 15 rounds.

In Dubai last December he told this writer: "I like playing under pressure. I feel it helps me concentrate better. If there is no pressure I get frustrated. When I get nervous I really like that."

Here he got his pressure and we got his sweaty response.

Till Raonic's leg slowed him down and reduced his serving leap, this match was fun - a Canadian adventurer often coming forward and a Scottish baseliner resisting his advances. In a sport whose repetitive baseline bickering can bring on a coma, here was a passing advertisement for diversity.

This wasn't quite the serve-volleying of the past, but this was an indication of the contrast that we crave from sport. Like a boxing slugger against a ring technician, or a runner who leads from the front against one who sprints from behind, we need the baseliner against attacker, working each other out and exploring the entire vocabulary of tennis.

In the best parts of the match, Raonic was hammering serves and Murray, a literate returner, was trying to read them - flat or kick, body or out wide - in fragments of a second. Net play followed and the thrill of it lay not just in the volley but in the journey to it: The weighing of risk, the patience, the setting up of shot, the commitment to cause.

Sometimes the Canadian stayed back, other times he approached like a wandering albatross on a low flight. That bird's wing-span is 3.4m; this fellow, almost 2m and lunging, is rather large, too. How much of the net could he cover? How much space did Murray need to pass? These are the fine questions tennis has forgotten but is starting to remember.

In his first five matches, Raonic played 102 serve-volley points and went to the net 248 times. Yesterday he won 13 of 19 serve-volley points and 50 of 74 net points. He is not the only man who thinks it is a passably fine idea. In their first five matches put together, the four semi-finalists (Raonic, Federer, Djokovic, Murray) came to the net 585 times; the four women semi-finalists did so 235 times.

Mats Wilander, the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, believes forays to the net have increased this year. "It's the evolving of tactics," he said. Net play went into hibernation, now it has awoken through necessity. "Players can't always hit winners from the back," says Wilander, because rivals hog the baseline and move too fast. "So now they need to threaten in a different way."

On this day, the Canadian's threat receded and the Scot's resistance never faded. Together they played 318 points, ran almost 6km and sweated through endless shirts. Such a match, with a wondrous beginning and a tense middle, deserved a finer finish.

Instead we were left with a winner, a man of dignity and sensitivity, who did not leap wildly on victory but merely raised his arm quietly. And a loser who sat disconsolate at a table and said: "I am happy with where my tennis is at. I just wish I could play... tennis." There seemed nothing more left to say.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Injured leg the cause of brave Raonic's broken heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe