In this quarter final show-down at the Australian Open grandslam major event in Melbourne, Rafael Nadal of Spain and Milos Raonic of Canada are set to square off in a match, which though may turn-out to be tedious in some-parts, is likely to still be a dramatic, edge-of-your-seat encounter.
The crux of the match-up (Serve vs Return)
Nadal has never had the greatest return of serve, especially from the forehand side. To stand a chance at winning against Raonic (Particularly now a days) you need an above average return and other than the fact it helps to make a big server play, there are a few less than obvious reasons why having a good return is so critical against them.
Guys with big, attacking first-strike game styles, aided by these lightening bolt serves (Such as your Karlovic, Isner, Raonic, Querrey, Rosol, Pospisil etc) are the biggest beneficiaries of ‘momentum’. The more aces and winners they hit, the more they ‘feel-good’ about their games, unlike counterpunchers, destiny happens to be in their own hands. They’re the one taking the initiative in the rally/point and they’re the one creating more of their own rhythm. Rather than being the one that reacts to the rhythm of their opponent and adjusts to what that player is doing.
Making more ‘meaningful returns’ in-court atleast inflicts potential pressure and/or doubt in the big servers’ mind. Weaker returners offer-up less pressure to a big servers’ clarity-of-thought. Serving is central to their game, their bread and butter, so the returner has to make them think.
The major issue Raonic has with the top dogs; Murray and Djokovic, is he has to work harder to win points on serve. Against other guys he can hold serve so easily that every-time they themselves are serving, it feels as though they’re doing so to stay in sets and matches. Considering Nadal doesn’t possess the most naturally good serve out-there, you can visualise how going down 0-15 or 0-30 in a service game may be rather mentally challenging for him in this match-up. It’s constant pressure.
Raonic’s incompetence on-the-backhand & how it fares against Nadal’s style
Now I know it’s improved drastically since his early days as a professional, where it was virtually non-existent, but Milos’ backhand continues to be the major weak area of his game. For me it’s ultimately the reason he’s still yet to lift a Masters 1000 trophy and that, for a player ranked 3# in the world and has reached a final of a grandslam, is largely disappointing.
When players are rushed and pressed for time by Raonic’s big forehand in-the-point, they’re able to reset the rally by getting the ball back relatively deep to his weaker backhand side. He ends up being pressed off the front-foot and brought out-of-his comfort zone, onto the back. (Foot). Being a big guy with a double hander, doesn’t help either. He really struggles to prepare quickly enough for getting behind this weakness of his which would allow him more time and room to rotate-at-the-hip with the shot.
Nadal’s a lefty and as mentioned in-the-past, entire game revolves around swinging heavy topspin forehands cross-court in attempt at breaking down the right handers’ typically weaker backhand wing. This is fundamentally why those with exceptional backhands like Djokovic and Murray are able to have such success against him and those who don’t (Or struggle with lateral movement), are left with dilemmas. Considering this and Raonic’s gaping weakness being his backhand, it’s pretty clear to see why most rallies over five shots in this match-up will favour Nadal.
Just like Nadal’s forehand, his lefty serves are typically aimed into the opponent’s backhand, whether it’s from the AD or deuce side. So again, it’s not good news for Raonic, as he’s always going to struggle getting meaningful returns back into court, leaving Nadal freedom to act as dictator off-the-point very early on in-the-rally using his forehand. (As he often does with anything short and central) Considering Nadal’s first serve has been the most impressive part of his game in 2017, you can see why it won’t be easy for Raonic and why his backhand return will be an absolute key shot in this match.
Raonic’s serve and volley
I expect Raonic to deploy serve and volley when he feels appropriate, given his stunning serve and Nadal’s mediocre return.
Players’ strengths and weaknesses
Raonic’s strengths: Serve, forehand and option to serve and volley using the edge given by his serve.
Raonic’s weaknesses: Backhand, return-of-serve and movement.
Nadal’s strengths: Inside-out/inside-in heavy topspin forehand, swinging away/in lefty serve on both AD and deuce side, movement.
Nadal’s weaknesses: Return of serve, second serve, defence on forehand side when dealing with flat-shots. Dependency on one-pattern-of-play.
Nadal’s legacy in the game and competitive fighting spirit means he’s fancied by many to win this one, but what matters most is the here and now. No player after so long out of the game suddenly bursts back onto-the-scene playing as good as they used to, with the same confidence as they used to. It’s a process. A long arduous process of forming successful habits and winning-belief and Nadal is still at the beginning.
Yes he’s starting to play quite well in patches, but that’s exactly what they are, patches. Against players with a mediocre backhand and no huge serve, Nadal is still able to front-foot dominate and wrestle himself back into contention in points when behind in the rally. Milos has a big serve and he’s not easy to contain when in charge of-the-point. Nadal will need to, as he’s said himself, be aggressive and limit him from as many opportunities to strike.
Nadal’s tenacity is still every bit there, but what isn’t is this confident man-of-steel mindset he used to compete with, particularly and especially in big-moments. Still absent. Still doubting himself and not feeling the forehand (His major weapon) like he did. Funnily enough it’s his backhand that seems to be causing players most trouble now a days.
The return of serve has never been anywhere near Murray, Djokovic or Nishikori standards and probably needs to be to beat Raonic over the course of a best of five sets on a medium fast court. He doesn’t defend off flat balls too well with his forehand, due to the nature of his grip and swing and Raonic is tactically clued-in enough about this to know that’s the target-area for his radar when he really has an opportunity for firing bullets in the rally.
Raonic beat Nadal in the tour event at Brisbane a couple of weeks back and even on the slow high bouncing courts (Which would favour Nadal) at Indian Wells, where humidity was through the roof, last year, too.
This always would have been a tough match-up for Rafa on medium-fast hard court, whether at his peak or not. So for me, considering where he is with his game at this present-moment-in-time, Raonic has to be the one I go with here.
A wise philosopher once said; “The foolish reject what they see, not what they think. The wise reject what they think, not what they see“.
I’m gonna be wise and go with what I see: Milos Raonic in 4 sets
(I know there are a lot of fanboys out there who won’t like this, so if Nadal grinds him out in 5, know that I do apologise for doubting your beloved one)
Trading (Hedging inplay) perspective: Early value on Raonic pre and during match at anything above 2.0, he’s likely to drop heavily once he wins the first set, leaving open for a nice exchange/hedge (Cashout/Trade)
Straight Result Betting perspective: 2.23 as a straight bet is hard to turn-down. Raonic should be the favourite from even a statistical point-off-view.