Milos Raonic defeats Stan Wawrinka in five sets
Canadian unbeaten this year
Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber advance to quarterfinals
Britons Johanna Konta and Andy Murray progress
A battle between two of the hottest players in tennis didn’t disappoint at the Australian Open and it was a Canadian who goes by the nickname of “Missile” that tamed the “Stanimal.”
Milos Raonic moved into the quarterfinals in Melbourne by upsetting 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka 6-4 6-3 5-7 4-6 6-3 in a three hour, 45-minute thriller that followed Novak Djokovic’s dramatic five-set victory over Gilles Simon a day earlier.
He was joined by second seed Andy Murray, who downed Bernard Tomic after almost pulling out of the event – his father-in-law Nigel Sears collapsed at the tournament on Saturday.
Raonic was tipped for big things several years ago, part of the next generation – along with the likes of Kei Nishikori – that seemingly had the potential to eventually challenge the “Big Four.”
His serve is the major weapon, as the nickname suggests, but foot surgery and back spasms derailed his 2015 season and left him “depressed” at times. He was, too, overtaken by Eugenie Bouchard in capturing the public’s imagination back home.
His ranking dropped considerably and unlike the year before, Raonic failed to qualify for the year-end championships.
In the off-season, there was more instability, as former top-five player Ivan Ljubicic left his coaching team and later joined Roger Federer. Raonic brought in a grand slam winner, Carlos Moya, to fill the void, with Riccardo Piatti still part of the coaching mix.
He won a tournament in Brisbane, beating Federer in the final two weeks ago, and has carried over the momentum at the year’s first major.
“I feel like I’m putting in the work and I’m getting the results from it,” Raonic told reporters. “I’m very happy with that. It gives me some kind of ease in those difficult moments, maybe if things aren’t going necessarily my way completely.”
The 25-year-old collected his first win over Wawrinka in five attempts and his first victory at one of the grandest stages in tennis, Rod Laver Arena. Mentally, it was a significant boost, even if Wawrinka said he’d been ill for nearly two weeks.
“It was a big win indeed,” Martin Laurendeau, Canada’s Davis Cup captain, told CNN. “It allows him to carry that momentum deep into a slam. He’s giving himself a chance to take it from here.
“That’s what he was eyeing to do at the beginning of the year, start out strong, make a statement that he’s making a run for the top.”
Wawrinka managed to break Raonic’s potent serve in the second set, something that hadn’t been done in three previous rounds, but in what was perhaps a turning point, immediately dropped serve.
After the Swiss drew level by claiming the fourth – to the crowd’s fervent approval – a Raonic toilet break might have settled the 13th seed.
He broke for 4-2 in the fifth when Wawrinka missed a forehand passing shot down the line and didn’t stutter when serving out the contest.
Overall Raonic hit 24 aces and 82 winners, alternating between net approaches and ripping forehands from the baseline. The numbers were a complete contrast to Djokovic, who made 100 unforced errors Sunday against counterpuncher Simon.
“I thought, ‘This is the best I’ve seen somebody volley in a long time,’” said Laurendeau, a serve and volleyer who played in the 1980s and 90s. “He was making every single volley. Deep, angled, short.
“And then the match turned around in the fifth. Stan’s level dropped a bit and he was there to take it away from him. It was a good effort from Milos to stay calm and not panic.
“He could have panicked because the match turned around and Stan was playing better and better.”
Yet Wawrinka didn’t have enough reserves to complete the comeback.
“I’ve been sick since 10 days now,” Wawrinka told reporters. “Still trying to get into the second week. Couldn’t really be at my top. When you play a top guy like Milos, it’s difficult. You need to be 100% to have a chance to beat him.”
A showman up next
Raonic, all focus on court, next meets a complete opposite in that respect in the last eight, Gael Monfils.
The Frenchman has a tendency to put showmanship ahead of results and in true Monfils fashion Monday, injured himself while diving to play a shot in his 7-5 3-6 6-3 7-6 (7-4) win over Russian Andrey Kuznetsov.
“I cannot even grip anything right now,” Monfils, into a first quarterfinal in Melbourne, told reporters. “I have a deep cut. That’s nothing. But I have a bruise. I’m lucky to not have a fracture.”
For all his crowd pleasing antics, Monfils is known for putting his returns back in play, which could trouble Raonic assuming the 29-year-old’s hand is better.
In 2008, the 23rd seed was on the other side of the net when Ivo Karlovic didn’t hit an ace for the first time in his ATP career. Karlovic, according to ATP records, has struck the most aces ever.
“He’s a difficult guy, goes for shots that tactically you’re not supposed to,” said Laurendeau of Monfils. “You never know what’s coming. He plays up to the crowd. It’s difficult to maintain concentration in a best three-of-out five with a guy like that.”
Murray will face a familiar foe in David Ferrer in the other bottom-half quarterfinal. The Briton beat Tomic, the last remaining Aussie in the draw, 6-4 6-4 7-6 (4), to improve to 17-0 against Australians in the top tier while Ferrer upended the last American man in the field, John Isner, 6-4 6-4 7-5.
A visibly drained Murray sunk to his chair after his post-match interview on court and later revealed he considered not turning up for the round of 16 match.
Sears collapsed on an adjacent court as Murray defeated Joao Sousa Saturday. He has since been cleared to return to the UK. Murray’s wife and Sears’ daughter Kim is heavily pregnant.
“Today, when I woke up I felt quite drained, quite tired,” the Scot told reporters. “As the day sort of went on and I decided to play, I started to focus a little bit better.
“But definitely on the court tonight I was more emotional than normal. I was talking to myself after every single point almost from the first point through till the last, which was obviously not ideal. That uses up a lot of energy.
“Again, just that makes you sort of more kind of up and down throughout the match, as well.”
Azarenka keeps cruising
Victoria Azarenka continued to pummel her way through the women’s draw, beating unseeded Czech Barbora Strycova 6-2 6-4. Azarenka won the women’s title in Brisbane; Strycova became the first player this year to take four games in a set off the former No. 1.
The Belorussian could get her stiffest test yet in the quarterfinals when she meets Angelique Kerber, although Azarenka crushed the German seventh seed in the Brisbane finale.
For so long Murray has been the lone member of British tennis going deep at majors but he is getting some company in Melbourne.
Johanna Konta, born in Australia, upset 2015 semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova 4-6 6-4 8-6 to become the first British woman to reach the quarterfinals at a grand slam since Jo Durie at Wimbledon in 1984.
Konta next tangles with Chinese qualifier Zhang Shuai, whose dream run continues. Zhang, 0-for-14 in grand slam matches prior to Melbourne, beat the injured 2015 semifinalist Madison Keys 3-6 6-3 6-3. Keys received treatment for an injury to what appeared to be her upper left leg and was in tears for some of the last hour of the match. She had to be helped to the locker room by her coach Jesse Levine.
On Tuesday, Djokovic attempts to rebound from his struggle against Simon when he tangles with Nishikori. Serena Williams, bidding for a 22nd major, plays Maria Sharapova in an intriguing – but one-sided – rivalry. Williams has won 17 consecutive matches against the Russian.