Milos Raonic came into his quarter-final against Novak Djokovic bidding to be the first Canadian man in 91 years to make the last four of a Grand Slam. But to reach that landmark, he would need to have been facing an opponent with fewer weapons than Djokovic, or else surely expand his own repertoire beyond the key first service. The scoreline looked close for two sets, but in truth there was always a lurking feeling that it was just a matter of time before Raonic’s limitations and Djokovic’s versatility would add up to the only possible conclusion, and so it proved. The No.2 seed won through to his fourth straight Roland Garros semi-final 7-5, 7-6(5), 6-4 in two hours and 22 minutes. He will face Ernests Gulbis for a place in the final.
“Should I say what I remember of him?” queried Djokovic, to laughter in his press conference, when he was reminded he and Gulbis knew one another at the age of 15. “I know he loves to joke around always. We were good friends. You could see he wanted to enjoy life with open arms. He was always very talented. He respected his coach and the players that he liked. The others, he just crushed in practice and tournaments. He always had this confidence that he was going to become something big, even though he was 14, 15 at the time. He had no fear. There were times when he liked to work; there were times when he didn't like to work so much. We always had a very good relationship.”
As a contest, his quarter-final against Raonic never quite caught fire. The No.8 seed did have a break point in the first set, and an actual break in the third with the aid of the net cord – but that was for 3-5. It never felt convincingly as if he could edge ahead, let alone keep hold of any such advantage. As long as Djokovic did not inexplicably disappear into some error-strewn parallel universe, he had only to bide his time. His watchfulness ensured that he was never at risk. Predictably Raonic fired down his usual hatful of aces – a total of 21 in this case – but if his first service failed to fire then Djokovic’s punishing return came into its own. Against an opponent of such quality, the Canadian’s lack of a Plan B was horribly exposed.
Raonic’s steady progression into the highest ranking echelons – he played here on a career high of No.9 – has been all about consistent Slam performances, rather than a single standout showing on one surface. It is important not to overlook that once again here he has taken a step into uncharted territory by going further than before. But on the evidence of this match he can only go so far. His potential to pierce the top three, and really put himself in line for Slam titles, is limited for as long as his game does not develop further.
Meantime, Djokovic’s quest for the only Slam title to have eluded him remains intriguingly on course, and it is the intangible quality of his focus as much as his court craft which has been so striking this fortnight. In many senses the third set scoreline was a truer reflection of his superiority, despite the fact that his three matches to date against Raonic have been dominated by close-fought sets.
A charismatic semi-final beckons – but Ernests Gulbis is going to have to come up with something a great deal more substantial than his trademark wild-eyed passion if he is going to prevent Djokovic taking his place in the ultimate showdown for the Coupe des Mousquetaires.