Process of Elimination
Wimbledon this year has been a tournament full of stories. First you have the fairy-tale of Marcus Willis, the teaching pro who won through qualifying and into the second round. His loss to Roger Federer did nothing to spoil his run – if anything it was a fitting way to send him home with a Center Court appearance against Wimbledon’s greatest champion. Del Potro made his mark taking down Wawrinka before falling to a surprisingly stout Pouille. Wawrinka’s loss was not overly shocking given his preference for dirt over the grass, but the fall of Novak Djokovic was. Sam Querrery played the match of his life to take down the defending champion, and in doing so opened up the draw in a way nobody anticipated.
They were not the only seeds to fall so far, merely the highest among them. Nishikori retiring with an injury is almost expected, and Gasquet and Thiem were never truly threats for the title despite Thiem’s fantastic results of late. Djokovic’s loss, while disastrous, is not indicative of any massive power shift. What we have seen this year is indications that, while the guard *is* changing, it will be a gradual transition. Kyrgios, Goffin, and especially Pouille all had impressive runs but all fell short against older, more experienced opponents.
Semi-Final #1: Roanic vs Federer
Milos Raonic has had a solid run to the semis this year. He’s handled a series of potentially tricky floaters (Sock, Goffin and Querrey) with varying degrees of success. However he’s also not had to deal with a genuine tournament contender yet. His run is reminiscent of Cilic’s 2014 US Open title, where Cilic defeated a series of respectable yet not tournament-threatening players before overcoming an exhausted Federer in the semis and then facing Nishikori in the finals. As in that case, Raonic too will face a Federer coming off a five-set match.
Federer has had a relatively easy draw, and despite a rusty-looking start in his first round he danced along in relative ease before running into Cilic. The Cilic match was a true test – the Croatian came out attacking and didn’t let up. A combination of fortune, experience and an excellent serving display saw Federer advance, but one has to question where his legs will be at tomorrow.
The pair have met 11 times in the past, with Federer winning 9 to Raonic’s 2. Only two of those meetings have been on grass courts, and only once have they faced off at Wimbledon. Federer won both of their grass court meetings, and has taken 5 of the 6 sets they’ve played on the surface.
Raonic’s two wins have been on hard-courts. He took their most recent meeting in the finals at Brisbane (6-4, 6-4), and on indoor hard-court back in 2014 (7-6, 7-5). Interestingly, they’ve had eight 7-6 sets in their 11 meetings with each player winning half of them. Milos has had four tie-breakers so far this tournament and won all of them. Federer has also had four tie-breakers and dropped just the one against Cilic.
It is probably surprising to a lot of people that Raonic and Federer actually have startlingly similar game plans. At the heart of things both have the same goals – use the serve to set up the forehand, and look to move forward and finish at the net as needed. Raonic’s serve is significantly faster than Federer’s, but his forehand is also not as complete, nor his volleys as polished. For all that Raonic is one of the very few players in the draw who has actually come to net more times per set than Roger, and has done so to great success.
Federer has the clear edge in movement, and his defensive game is stronger than Raonic’s. Neutral rallies will largely belong to the Swiss, and on the grass Federer can use his slice backhand more effectively than on other surfaces to create forehand opportunities for himself.
On Raonic’s serve, we can expect Federer to largely try to redirect the pace with chips and blocks, bunting the ball with depth and little power. His primary goal will be to have Roanic consistently hitting his first ball on or preferably behind the baseline. Raonic meanwhile will look to hit big forehands from inside the baseline at every opportunity. Roanic tends to favor the wide serve in both boxes on the grass, but particularly so on the ad court. Expect him to attack the Federer backhand with the serve and first ball, although with his ~115mph second serve he will take some seconds into the Federer forehand to keep him honest.
Federer’s serving patterns are well known, so much so I wrote an entire article about his use of the wide serve on the deuce court. Particularly with Raonic’s size, he will look to draw the big man out of position with the first serve and catch him on the move with the first ball. Expect Federer’s second serves to largely be at the body on the backhand side, although he will hit his fair share to Raonic’s backhand also.
Raonic has worked hard on developing his game. He has very quietly made large strides in improving his returns and baseline game, and he represents a genuine threat to what remains of the “Big Four”. For all that, this match is largely going to be about two things.
The first is Federer’s recovery. A relatively fresh Swiss will see Roanic off in 4 sets. A tired one will get blown off the court by the Canadian’s power much as we saw Cilic do to Federer in 2014 at the US Open. To see which way the wind will blow, look at Federer’s first step right from the get-go. If it’s slow, things are unlikely to go well for him.
The second is Federer’s aggression level. Federer played relatively passively against Cilic, coming in only 27 times in 5 sets – an average of 5.4 times per set. In comparison Federer came in more than 13 times per set against Steve Johnson, a man who also possesses a big serve and forehand. Raonic does not suffer from confusion about his identity as a tennis player. He will not take his foot off the gas, nor will he willingly let Federer extend rallies. If Federer does not take the initiative he can not exploit the weakest part of Raonic’s game – his defense.
Prediction: Aggressive Federer wins it in 4 tight sets. A passive Federer loses it in 4 tight sets.