Let’s give Milos Raonic a break and write that one off to rustiness and a lack of match play.
At the same time, let’s be clear. That was awful.
In a third set with America’s Frances Tiafoe on Wednesday, after dropping the first set and winning the second, Raonic was suddenly a man without a plan.
Flustered. Berating himself. Yelling at his coach, Goran Ivanisevic.
At the other end, the 20-year-old Tiafoe was composed and focused, essentially trying to play the same point time and time again, pushing Raonic to the same corner, forcing him to run around an uncooperative backhand over and over.
And so, after an impressive win over David Goffin, Raonic is gone from the 2018 Rogers Cup, blasted 6-1 by Tiafoe in an embarrassing final set. It was the latest in a series of disappointing performances by Raonic at a tournament that doesn’t always seem to agree with him. Or his schedule. Or his various rehabs from injury.
Yes, there was that wonderful run to the final against Rafael Nadal in Montreal five years ago. But other than that, it’s not unfair to say Raonic, who has played very well for his country in Davis Cup competitions held in Canada, has rarely played his best tennis at our national pro tennis championship.
There’s clearly more hype at the Rogers Cup than elsewhere for the big man, and that’s particularly true in Toronto, where he’s 6-6 lifetime. You know he’d love to play well in his hometown, and maybe that, combined with timing coming off injuries, is part of the reason he hasn’t been able to deliver very often.
This year, he was hurt at Wimbledon in a quarterfinal loss to John Isner, and the Rogers Cup was his first tournament since. He looked sharp against Goffin in his first match, but sloppy and out-of-sorts against Tiafoe.
If Toronto, and the Rogers Cup in general, haven’t brought out the best in Raonic, the opposite would be the case for Denis Shapovalov. He loves this tournament and in three tries, he has delivered eye-popping results.
Two years ago, he knocked off tour bad boy Nick Kyrgios in Toronto, with Kyrgios doing his usual ‘I’m-too-cool-to-even-try’ thing. Last year in Montreal, it was Shapovalov’s breakthrough event, with wins over Juan Martin del Potro and Nadal before a loss to fellow young guy Alexander Zverev in the semifinals. All that at age 18.
This year, now 19, Shapovalov easily dealt with French veteran Jeremy Chardy in his opening match, then stormed back to defeat Italian stylist Fabio Fognini in straight sets on Wednesday. Trailing 0-4 in the second set, Shapovalov got one break back and kept chipping away.
“Really, I was just preparing for the third,” said Shapovalov. “But once I got a break, just kept fighting. I kind of loosened up.”
Fognini couldn’t regain his composure, and even tried to exchange words with the young Canadian at one point.
“I’m not really sure what he was upset about,” said Shapovalov, who won seven of the final eight games. “He was just chirping at me.”
Shapovalov, meanwhile, was doing a little chirping himself at tournament organizers for exiling him to the grandstand court while Raonic, Peter Polansky and Felix Auger-Aliassime all got marquee billing on centre court.
Shapovalov sent out one sarcastic, mocking tweet aimed at Rogers Cup boss Karl Hale, then quickly deleted it.
“I did make a tweet. It came out the wrong way, which is why I deleted it,” he explained. “It was just that so many family and friends wanted to see me. It was just disappointment on my part.”
That was just a 19-year-old who plays like a much older player on-court behaving like a petulant teenager off the court. No big deal. It also shows just how confident Shapovalov feels in the Rogers Cup environment, as if this is his playground and it’s his destiny to be the star, and eventual winner one day.
Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard (4-11 at the Rogers Cup), on the other hand, never seem to have thoroughly embraced being the centre of attention at the annual Canadian event, at least not in the same way as Shapovalov has. It could be that he is following in their footsteps, a more comfortable path than it was for them as they became the highest-ranked Canadians ever.
Who knows why it’s this way, really? But while Raonic and Bouchard play their best tennis elsewhere on their respective tours, Shapovalov — so far, at least — roars loudest in the Great White North.