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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, March 20, 2015

 
Milos Raonic

Milos Raonic saved three match points in the tie break, rallying past Rafael Nadal, 4-6, 7-6 (10), 7-5, to score his first career win over the Spaniard and advance to the Indian Wells semifinals.

Photo credit: @BNPParibasOpen.

Rafael Nadal produced some of the most eye-popping passing shots of the day from obscure areas of the court.

Milos Raonic never even blinked.

A stubborn Raonic withstood everything the three-time champion threw at him, firing back with even more ambition in the decisive set. Raonic fought off three match points in the tie break to rally past Nadal, 4-6, 7-6 (10), 7-5 and surge into the Indian Wells semifinals for the first time.

More: Federer Destroys Berdych In Quarterfinals

Blasting 19 aces, showing plenty of resilience in pressure points and attacking with confidence at crunch time, Raonic defeated the former world No. 1 for the first time, becoming the first Canadian to ever beat Nadal in an ATP match.

"It's really great what I was able to do today and I'm very happy with it, but I don't let myself get caught up, because this isn't where it ends," Raonic said in his post-match press conference. "There is a lot more that I want to achieve this week. So it's always about what do I need to do next to get better. It's always been like that. Not just throughout tournaments but...when I have done well and I've gotten my ranking up and had new  milestones there, it's always,'Okay, what's next?' It's just the way I think."

The sixth-seeded Raonic reached his second straight Masters 1000 semifinal. He will face Roger Federer for a spot in Sunday's final. Federer won seven straight games thrashing Tomas Berdych, 6-4, 6-0, in today's first quarterfinal.

The second-ranked Swiss has won eight of nine meetings with Raonic, including a 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-4 victory in their most recent match at the Brisbane final in January. Raonic's lone decision came indoors at the Paris Masters last November when he slammed 21 aces defeating Federer 7-6 (5), 7-5.

Though he showed some nerves on match-point moments, Nadal defended his second serve more effectively, earned more break points (seven to four for Raonic) and looked more fluid hitting on the run. Nadal said he viewed the loss as a positive step in the process of refining his form.

"In general, I played aggressive," Nadal said. "I played with determination, with the right attitude, I think, playing good tennis. I lost, and I feel that I had a lot of chances to win. Let's keep working that way. As I say since the first week of the season, is a process that I had to pass, and I am doing the normal process. The positive thing is during that process sometimes with losses like I had few times in the last couple of weeks maybe you are going down, but is not my case. I think every week I am better. Every week I am more competitive. Every week I feel stronger,  quicker  on court again. My movements are good again."

The Raonic-Nadal encounter pitted one of the game's most explosive servers against one of the most reliable returners. Raonic is second to Ivo Karlovic on the ATP Tour in service games won this season (94 percent) and had held in all 30 of his service games this week. Nadal is second on the ATP in return games won in 2015 (36 percent) and led the tournament in that category, winning 51 percent of his return games.




Nerves were evident at the outset. Nadal stabbed back a floating return and Raonic bungled his forehand reply to face triple break point. Hooking an uppercut forehand into the corner, Nadal drew the error to break for 2-1.

It was the first time in the tournament Raonic was broken and the last time all day he would surrender serve. Raonic saved six of the seven break points he faced.

The depth of the Spaniard's drives drew a mis-hit forehand as Nadal served out the first set in 37 minutes. In the opening set, Nadal backed up his serve with more vigor. He served 70 percent, won 20 of 24 points played on his serve and delivered three love holds in five service games.

The third seed repeatedly hurt the slower Raonic by curling his forehand crosscourt into the Canadian's weaker backhand wing to create space for his forehand down the line. That shot was sensational at times today.

Deadlocked at 1-all in second set, Nadal was streaking to his left near the shadow of the chair umpire's seat when he flicked an absurd-angled forehand winner crosscourt that froze the Canadian and brought many of the fans, including tournament owner Larry Ellison, out of their seats in appreciation.

It was a stunning shot that can cause serious repercussions, but on this day Raonic was focused solely on the task at hand.

Nadal ratcheted up the pressure in the fifth game, earning three break points. Raonic met the challenge with his most ambitious play of the day. He saved two of the three break points with solid volleys, eventually working through a challenging hold for 3-2.

Unleashing his wrecking ball serve with more accuracy, Raonic began hitting his groundstrokes with more margin and pressured Nadal with his court positioning rather than trying to squeeze shots so close to the lines as he'd done in the opener. Backing up a 144 mph missile down the middle by battering a body serve with so much pace, Nadal's framed return sailed into the crowd, Raonic held at 30 for 4-3.

The forehand up the line was a winning weapon much of the match, but Nadal missed a redirected forehand to face double set point at 4-5. Raonic whipped a forehand that a spinning Nadal blocked back. Lining up his favored forehand again, Raonic tried taking it down the line and found the net instead. Nadal erased the second set point with an ace down the middle.

Rafael Nadal

The first tie break in six meetings between the pair produced major momentum shifts. When Nadal curled a running forehand down the line that dipped into the court and dotted the baseline, he had the mini-break and 5-4 lead in the tie break.

On Nadal's first match point at 6-5, Raonic rushed the net to draw an error. He nullified the second match point with bold bounce smash. Holding a third match point at 10-9, Nadal tightened up netting a return off a second serve, then missing a return wide.

"That return on the 10-9, big  mistake with the second-serve return," Nadal said afterward. "That's the only thing that I can say to myself [I would do differently] during the whole match. So maybe with more  victories on my shoulders, without being outside of the competition for several months, maybe I will win that match because I will not play the return like this.

"But is normal that you are a little bit more nervous in that moment than usual.  It's true that I didn't compete at that level of intensity mentally in tennis for a long time. I didn't play the match with  that positive energy and that attitude since almost eight, nine months."

Suddenly, Raonic was looking at a fifth set point. Drifting back further behind the baseline, Nadal netted a running forehand and Raonic snatched the tense second set to level the match.

"To be honest with you, at the moments when I was playing those match points it didn't really feel like match points," Raonic said. "It was just like another point that I was trying to get through. I can only remember one that he sort of gifted me a second-serve return with his forehand, but I don't even remember the last two. It just sort of going through the paces at that moment of what do I need to do now, not really signifying it as a match point."


A slick angled forehand volley helped Nadal navigate a two-deuce game and hold for 2-1 in the decider. Two games later, Raonic stared down the first break point of the decider and slammed a 141 mph ace out wide — his 14th ace of the day — to save it, holding for 3-3.

In 11th game, Raonic lasered a 95 mph inside-out forehand winner for his first break point of the set. In the ensuing 17-shot rally, the Canadian had the edge, but missed the mark on a diagonal forehand for deuce. Raonic's co-coach Ivan Ljubicic, who beat Nadal and Andy Roddick in succession to win his lone Masters Series title in Indian Wells five years ago, watched his charge court-side from behind a pair of dark shades. Ljubicic and co-coach Riccardo Piatti had to be pleased with Raonic's aggression in the final games. Rather than waiting for Nadal to make a mistake, Raonic took the match to him.




The 24-year-old Canadian came right back spreading the court with the inside-out forehand and finishing with the crosscourt forehand for a second break point. Nadal tried to take charge and moved forward, but Raonic dug out a tricky lob that soared over the Spaniard's head and settled inside the baseline as he broke for 6-5.

Ripping a 146 mph ace to open the final game, Raonic finished the job off with a crisp forehand volley and a couple of rousing forehands, earning a career breakthrough victory in two hours, 58 minutes and giving his coach a belated birthday present. Former champion Ljubcic celebrated his 36th birthday yesterday and wore the smile of a man thrilled to see his player's coming of age victory today.


 

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