Statistics can sometimes can be deceiving. Although Novak Djokovic leads Milos Raonic 9-0 in their ATP Head2Head series, he hardly feels that a win is a foregone conclusion when they face off. The second-seeded Serbian is ready for a big-hitting showdown against the No. 32 seed from Canada when they meet in quarter-final action at the Australian Open on Tuesday.
”He’s one of the tallest and strongest guys physically on the Tour. He has one of the biggest serves. I’ve got to be ready for missiles coming from his side of the net,” Djokovic said. “I played him here and remember it well… One of the key elements will be how well I’m returning and how confident I am on my service games.
“I’m glad to see him healthy and playing at a really good level again. He’s a great guy. I’ve known him for many years and he’s a good friend. We speak the same language. It’s nice to see him in the quarters.”
Djokovic has been in vintage form so far in Melbourne and won the past 10 sets he’s played. But while the No. 2 player in the FedEx ATP Rankings has been rock solid from the baseline, he’s been turning heads with a beefed-up serve that was implemented during the off-season. Djokovic has only lost serve twice in four rounds and won more than 90 per cent of his first-serve points in his second and third-round victories.
Imposing himself in return games will be a much harder task against Raonic’s serve. The Canadian hasn’t been broken in 12 sets and leads the tournament in both aces (82) and first-serve points won (87%). But Djokovic’s dominance over Raonic, including a quarter-final win five years ago at this event, will likely allow him to feel confident in swinging freely on returns.
“It’s a huge advantage when you hit serves from that height. You can hit any angle, anything you really want. That puts a lot of pressure on your opponent,” Djokovic said. “But, of course, that also has some disadvantages in terms of movement.”
Although an early exit in Melbourne would have pushed Raonic out of the Top 50 for the first time in nine years, his current ranking doesn’t reflect a dip in form, but rather an ongoing challenge to stay healthy. The 29-year-old only played 14 tournaments last year as he dealt with multiple injuries, including glute and back ailments.
But when Raonic is in top shape, he still displays the level that brought him to the 2016 Wimbledon final (l. to Murray) and a career-high ranking of No. 3. Reigning Nitto ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas, widely considered one of the best returners in the game, admitted after his third-round defeat last week to Raonic that he “felt a bit stupid returning his serves.” Marin Cilic, who lost on Sunday to Raonic, declared that the Canadian is playing well enough to take the title.
“I didn’t play much tennis last year, so I think the toughest part in this off-season was I knew I did six good weeks of training and I knew it would sort of come together,” Raonic said. “I was hoping I would play well in the first week of the year, but that didn’t happen. I knew I had to be patient… I’m glad it’s paying off pretty early.”
Raonic is fully aware of his record against Djokovic, but knows there have been chances to get in the winner’s column. Their most recent battle was a tight three-setter at the 2018 Western & Southern Open. Prior to that, he extended the Serbian to two tie-breaks at the 2016 Nitto ATP Finals. Raonic’s serve will help keep the score close and he believes he can get over the line by capitalising on the limited opportunities that Djokovic might offer.
If Raonic is to pick up his first win over the seven-time champion, Rod Laver Arena would be a fitting location. With more quarter-final appearances (5) and a better record (31-9, 78%) at this event than any other Grand Slam, Melbourne has been a fruitful hunting ground for him. Picking up his first win over a Top 3 player since 2016 would deliver a clear statement that the Canadian is back in business.
“I’m going to have to serve well and then I’m going to have to get my return at a high percentage, make him play a lot of those points, and then try to be efficient on my service games,” Raonic said. “I think we play quite opposite from each other, and he’s done a good job in the past neutralising my serve. So I have really got to focus on my things well and be the one dictating.”