Will Milos Raonic’s strategy against Federer guide him to the Wimbledon title?

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Will Milos Raonic’s strategy against Federer guide him to the Wimbledon title?

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Arun S Kaimal

07/09/2016

Two years ago, a young and upcoming Canadian tennis player took on arguably one of the greatest players ever to play at the All England Club for a place in the final.

Roger Federer, then 32, eased past Milos Raonic, then 23, in one hour and 42 minutes to enter his ninth Wimbledon final with a straight-sets victory. Cut to the present and the young Canadian finally came of age to oust the Swiss Master from his ‘second home.’

Milos Raonic is not a newbie in the Tennis circuit. The 6 feet 5 inches tall Canadian burst onto the scene way back in 2011 in the Australian Open. A fourth round appearance after starting as a qualifier and a booming serve gave him the tag of the ‘next big thing’.Injuries and indifferent form stopped him from achieving greater heights than two semi-final appearances, but a semi-final showdown against a Wimbledon great was all he needed to return to the limelight.

On the other side of the court was one of the greatest players to play at Wimbledon. Roger Federer, a seven-time champion, and a10-time finalist. Federer held a 9-2 head-to-head record against Raonic going into the match. The crowd cheered for their FedEx, but the big-serving Canadian had other plans.

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The ‘monster serve’

With 23 aces and the fastest serve of this tournament at 144mph, to understand Raonic’s match against Federer we must start from the monster serve of the Canadian. Boasting a towering figure of 6 feet and 5 inches, Raonic’s first serve is one of the biggest in history. He went into the match, having played 114 aces through his first five matches and made sure that he continued in the same way.

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His opponent, Roger Federer, had played 49 aces less than Raonic before the match and made seven less than the Canadian in the semi-final match. Although Federer has been successful against big-serving players, his recent form has not been great. The Swiss Master had lost to German teenager Alexander Zverev in June before struggling against Marin Cilic in the quarter-finals of the Wimbledon. The huge serves once again became a problem on Friday.

In the semi-final match, Federer opted to continue with his normal position when receiving Raonic’s serves rather than moving a few feet back or stepping inside the baseline. This allowed the Canadian to continue his routine game and produce aces and big serves. Raonic managed to win 83 percent on first serve and 46 percent on the second serve against the FedEx to trouble him in the match. If we look closely, then we will understand small percentages make a big difference in a game like tennis. Raonic's win percentage on first serves shows a two percent increase from his average for the 2015 season and this made the difference on the day.

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The McEnroe effect

Raonic has always possessed the ability to demolish opponents with his big serves. But, the improvements on his forehand and his giant strides in serving and volleying have been surprising, to say the least. The improvements point to the role of the super-coaches in the stands. The Canadian added 1998 French Open champion Carlos Moya in January before welcoming three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe as a grass-court consultant.

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McEnroe’s immediate impact is there for all to see. In 2014, when he made to the semis, Raonic served and volleyed only 33 times and won on 25 occasions. After McEnroe’s arrival, the Canadian’s stats skyrocketed and he won 99 of the 133 serve and volley points he played. On Friday, it was no different. He set up the game with his big serve and finished it with a serve and volley. He won 16 of his 19 serve and volley points on the day against Federer, who only managed 11 of 16. His overall movement in the court also showed improvement with him hitting 75 winners against Federer’s 49. With Raonic playing an attacking game, Federer’s baseline game also got affected. With his opponent’s big weapon neutralised, the Canadian had an upper hand every time in the match.

Another important element to Raonic’s game in the match against Federer was the body serves he played. With Federer’s backhand returns a weak point of his game, Raonic played 21 body serves against the seven-time champion. The Canadian had only played 34 body serves in the tournament in his last five matches and changed his game to outfox the Swiss Master. The strategy was clear and Federer managed just 17 percent win on first serve returns.

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Mistakes and injury creep into the master

An unfortunate knee injury earlier in the season had ruined Federer’s plans in the French Open and the knee injury once again came to the fore on Friday during the crucial fifth set of the semi-final. He slipped on the Centre Court surface and called the trainer to examine his knee before continuing the play. Although Federer returned to the court swiftly, the troubled knee had seemingly taken something away. Having played a five-setter two days earlier, the seven-time champion was visibly tired and Raonic did not miss the opportunity. He cashed in on the opportunity and became the first Canadian man to enter a Grand Slam final in the Open-Era.

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Crucial mistakes at crucial times in the match from a normally ice-cool Federer was another aspect that led to the defeat. After losing the first set tamely, the Swiss Master bounced back and looked on the way to his 11th Wimbledon final before the mistakes crept in. Federer was 2-1 up in the match and 40-0 on serve with the fourth set at 5-6, and it looked easy. But, Federer stumbled and committed two double faults to give Raonic a chance and the Canadian took it with both hands. Some may call it as Raonic’s mental toughness, but it was clear that Federer was not immune to pressure anymore.

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Can Raonic do the same against Murray?

Going past Federer was an accomplishment, but defeating Andy Murray in front of his home crowd will be a huge challenge for Raonic come Sunday. The World No.2 has defeated Raonic in their last five meetings with the latest coming in the final of the Aegon Championship. In fact, Raonic’s last win against Murray came way back in 2014. Raonic is one of the best serves of the sport, but he will find it tough against Murray with the Scot regarded as one of the best returners. Murray has made it to all the three Grand Slam finals this calendar year and will be looking to claim his second Wimbledon title after facing defeat to World No.1 Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open and the French Open.

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Raonic’s strategy against Federer was mainly dependent on his booming serves and the serve and volley approach. But, against Murray, he will have to change it significantly.The World No.2 will also look to negate the serve and volleys by using some passing shots, particularly off the backhand. Mental toughness has been the problem of both the players and the match more than likely will be decided on the same. But, Murray’s experience at the big stage and the support from the home crowd may just help him enough to defeat the Canadian. 

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