Lessons of the Game
Tough one for Milos Raonic. But a compelling final blast from Lleyton Hewitt.
Hewitt, always one of the sport's toughest competitors, may be in the twilight of his long, successful career. But he had enough guile and patience and fire left to bounce the 21-year-old Raonic from the Australian Open today with a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 upset win.
Raonic, seeded No. 23, was favoured to win over the 30-year-old Hewitt, and came out guns-a-blazing in the first set in the first ever meeting between the two. But gradually, Hewitt figured out the Canadian, gradually exploiting his inexperience to wear him down before a raucous, partisan audience at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park.
The match undoubtedly turned in the third set tiebreak when Raonic lost his final three service points, including missing an easy put away at the net on set point.
"I was a bit lucky. He missed a high forehand volley he'd probably make 99 times out of a 100," said Hewitt.
Raonic's trademark big serve worked well for the most part and he hit 23 aces and some as fast as 228 kilometres per hour, but he made far too many unforced errors (54) and struggled with his movement. As the match wore on, Hewitt just moved the youngster around the court, giving Raonic just enough rope to hang himself. In particular, the Aussie kept serving wide to Raonic in the deuce court, and Raonic kept making the same error over and over.
The ESPN announcers began the match gushing over Raonic, comparing him to the legendary Pete Sampras, but ended up paying homage to Hewitt's veteran savvy and guts on court. The former world No. 1 is now No. 181 in the world, but he saved a special performance for his national tournament in what may be his farewell appearance.
It was great theatre, with Hewitt trying to draw the crowd into the match, and Raonic trying to maintain his composure after overwhelming Hewitt in the early going with his awesome power. In the end, he might have been a little overwhelmed by the moment, his first big stage exposure at a Grand Slam event.
It was a disappointing third round result for Raonic given that he made it to the fourth round Down Under last year, and because a victory would have meant a match with the best player on the planet, Serbia's Novak Djokovic.
Those unfamiliar with the sport might see it as a devastating loss, given that Raonic was the favourite. But really, it was the continuing process of Raonic refining his game in high pressure moments against the best in the world, an opportunity largely denied last season when he missed months after hip surgery.
Raonic actually had two break points in the final game in a last gasp bid to stay in the match, then saved one match point with a superb approach shot and volley winner , then saved another after that. But he couldn't put away another volley on Hewitt's third match point, and then missed a desperate attempt to get to a Hewitt lob to end the match. An emotional Hewitt collapsed on the court in utter joy.
"A good performance overall (from Raonic)," said commentator Patrick McEnroe, brother of John. "He's going to be a major factor in the men's game."
Raonic will soon head home to get ready for Canada's much-anticipated return to the world group of the Davis Cup next month in Vancouver against France. Canada qualified for the world group by beating Israel last September.