The stage is set for a big-serving power duel between Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic, both returning to form after difficult seasons, for a place in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.
Raonic vs Cilic is live from Melbourne on Sunday 26 January at 3pm local/2am GMT
Like Cilic a former Wimbledon finalist, Raonic has developed into a consistent Australian Open performer in recent years, with his best result a semifinal in 2016, and has only once failed to reach the quarterfinals or better on his last five appearances (in 2018, when he lost to Lukas Lacko in the first round).
Ranked as high as world no. 3 in 2016, the year he made the solitary Grand Slam final appearance of his career so far at Wimbledon, Raonic ended 2017 outside the top 20 and has been struggling really for two or three years now, despite continuing to reach quarterfinals at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. A succession of minor injuries have made it difficult for him to build up any momentum, as in 2019 when he played pretty well when he was able to play, but missed large chunks of the season and both the French and US Opens.
It’s a measure of Raonic’s slide in the rankings that he did not represent Canada at the ATP Cup but instead played the 250 in Doha – where he was beaten by qualifier Corentin Moutet in the first round. Despite this inauspicious beginning to the season, however, Raonic has been playing fantastic tennis in Melbourne, not only breezing past lucky loser Lorenzo Giustino and Christian Garin of Chile but maintaining that pace when he faced sixth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, dismissing the ATP Finals champion and 2019 semifinalist 7-5, 6-4, 7-6(2).
Tsitsipas said after the match that the experience of playing Raonic felt a lot like being ‘punched in the face with one shot’, and it’s true that Raonic has been serving spectacularly so far. He has yet to be broken at the Australian Open, saving all three break points he faced; has pelted down 47 aces; and is winning almost 90% of his first-serve points. Against Tsitsipas, he was relentlessly but brilliantly aggressive, constantly attacking the net and landing some exquisite volleys on his way to the straight-sets win.
‘I have always somehow figured out how to put it together here, especially if I have had the freedom to train well.
I think when I have had the freedom to really focus on my body, not go from tournament to tournament, focus on training and doing my things well, and allowing myself to get confidence through that work, I have always managed to put things to a pretty presentable level I can be happy with. From there on you’ve got to go out on court, fight, and it worked out well.’
Marin Cilic hasn’t been anywhere near as consistent an Australian Open performer as Raonic; only twice in his career has he made it past the quarterfinals, making the semifinals in 2010 and then, eight years later, putting together a run that took him to the third Grand Slam final of his career, pushing Roger Federer to five sets.
Defeat to Roberto Bautista Agut in the fourth round of the Australian Open in 2019 heralded a season in which Cilic would fail to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time since 2013. It was one of the worst seasons of Cilic’s career, in which he recorded a 23-19 win-loss record and plummeted down the rankings from world no. 9 to world no. 38, failed to win a single ATP title for the first year since 2007 and only made the semifinals of one event.
It was hard to say exactly what went wrong for Cilic in 2019; he seemed to be having real problems with his knee, but not enough to keep him from playing for any great length of time. The Croatian himself attributed it to a long season and late finish to 2018, which wrapped up with him leading Croatia to the title at the last ‘old style’ Davis Cup final, saying:
‘It was just a different season for me than many other ones that I had, due to various things. I spent quite a few emotions in 2018 with the Davis Cup, and it was long season again.’
Although Cilic’s start to the season at the ATP Cup, where he lost to the only top-100 opponent he faced, did not inspire particular confidence, like Raonic the Croatian seems to be once again putting it together in Melbourne. After opening with a straight-sets win over Moutet, who had beaten Raonic in Doha, Cilic ousted 21st seed Benoit Paire in a five-set battle before winning another against Bautista Agut, avenging last year’s Australian Open defeat to the ninth seed.
Cilic’s 6-7(3), 6-4, 6-0, 5-7, 6-3 win over Bautista Agut was a very impressive one given how well Bautista Agut had been playing to start the year; the Spaniard was on a ten-match winning streak after winning all his singles matches at the Davis Cup Finals and ATP Cup, and didn’t play badly against Cilic by any stretch of the imagination. It was left to the Croatian to make things happen, to penetrate Bautista Agut’s solidity from the back of the court and impose his big game on the match without making too many mistakes; not an easy tightrope to walk. Hitting 76 winners to 53 unforced errors is a fairly legitimate way of doing so.
The big concern for Cilic must be that he has played two very long matches, while Raonic has won all of his in straight sets; but Cilic has also been toughened up by doing so. The Croatian, while a less effective server than Raonic, is a better baseliner; he also has a 2-1 advantage in the head-to-head, although two of those matches came in 2011 and 2013, so it’s hard to read too much into them. Raonic was so tremendous against Tsitsipas, and is better rested: That could well be enough for him to have the edge in this contest and make his fifth Australian Open quarterfinal.