After a tension-filled tournament opener with a familiar foe, Milos Raonic survives as the lone Canadian singles player left in the Rogers Cup.
Organizers could breathe a sigh of relief after the 23-year-old Canadian won a three-set nail-biter over U.S wildcard Jack Sock Wednesday in second-round play, 4-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(4). During a week when Canada's other singles players were bouncing out early, its missile-serving World No.6 lives another day and will face unseeded Frenchman Julien Benneteau on Thursday.
"It's a relief," said a relaxed Raonic after the win. "All the difficulties, getting through that match – facing break points, all the weight that might have been on your shoulders, it's the relief of just getting all that off."
The native of Thornhill, Ont. blistered two poignant aces by Sock on his opening two serves of the match, causing the American to lurch awkwardly as if adjusting to the menacing pace. But the 21-year-old World No.60, facing the Canadian for the sixth time in the past 18 months, didn't take long to get comfortable.
It was Sock who first went up a break, easing up 3-2, then 4-2. Raonic struggled in his return game, fumbled volleys into the net and made unforced errors. Many minds were no doubt drifting back on the previous night, when hometown girl Genie Bouchard got dusted in her tournament opener in Montreal, leaving Raonic as the only Canadian singles player left standing in either Rogers Cup city.
A semi-full house of some 8,500 fans seemed uneasy at Toronto's Rexall Centre, some in red and white hockey jerseys or holding signs handed to them when they entered, glossy red ones reading "Tennis is Canada". Confused by the sluggish start from their hometown boy in a red Maple Leaf shirt, they were quiet.
His parents were in the crowd, so was his boyhood coach Casey Curtis. But Raonic wasn't dominating his opponent as he often does, not like he displayed often during his recent run to the Wimbledon semi-final or his tournament victory last weekend in Washington. Sock was being one cool customer against the hometown kid, despite a crowd that was growing in intensity, tossing some "inappropriate comments" his way, as he would later attest.
Sock and Raonic had met twice this summer already – Raonic the winner at Wimbledon and in Washington – but they had played two tie-breakers a week ago, and Raonic won them. Sock, who has improved from No. 100 to No. 60 this year, was left thinking he had just been a couple of opportunities shy in Washington, that "he got me in my home country last week, so I'll try to get some revenge." This is a player who has had to answer for the lack of recent American tennis stars. He too, is trying to make his name.
But neither could break in the second set, so they settled it in a tie-breaker, where Raonic took the upper hand, and the fist-pumping confidence of a Top 10 player emerged.
More of the same came in the deciding set – no one could convert their break point chances, and so they went to another tension-filled tie-breaker.
"I feel good in [tiebreakers], especially if things are not going throughout the set the way I would have liked -- if I'm not converting opportunities or giving away too many opportunities," said Raonic. "I know that if I can get it to a tiebreak, I can sort of tip things in my favor."
As the Canadian scored the deciding point in the tiebreaker and pumped his fist triumphantly, his entourage exhaled with visible relief.
"He kind of comes up big in those moments," said Sock "I definitely had my chances and it's a tough one to swallow."
After the two-and-a-half hour odyssey, Raonic readies for Benneteau, the World No. 47 who has defeated Lleyton Hewitt and 11th-seeded Ernests Gulbis this week. They are scheduled for around 6:30 p.m. ET Thursday. Top names still loom in Raonic's portion of the draw, like No.2-seeded Roger Federer and No.4 David Ferrer. The Canadian ran to the final of last year's event, where he lost to Rafael Nadal.
"I've told Milos, this tournament is his, and if he wants a starting time, he's got it," said tournament director Karl Hale. "We want him to win a Rogers Cup."
Most of the world's most well-known stars play on in Toronto. The tournament dodged a bullet earlier Wednesday when top-seeded Novak Djokovic survived a second-round thriller with uber-athletic but erratic unseeded underdog Gael Monfils, 6-2, 6-7(4), 7-6(2). Andy Murray, the No.8 seed, easily handled rising teen Nick Kyrgios; No.4-seeded David Ferrer outlasted Mike Russell; and No.7 Grigor Dmitrov got past Donald Young.
Canadian doubles star Daniel Nestor plays on with his partner Nenad Zimonjic, who beat the team of Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 6-4 Tuesday. They will play Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the quarter-finals.
Other top-billed players in third-round action Thursday will include No.2-seeded Roger Federer taking on No. 15 seed Marin Cilic, Djokovic facing No. 13 Jo Wilfried Tsonga; No. 3 Stan Wawrinka meeting Kevin Anderson, and No.8 Andy Murray playing No.12 Richard Gasquet.
Raonic is 2-1 against Benneteau in previous meetings.
"I have been able to find the answers, so hopefully I can do that again," said Raonic. "It's going to come down to serving well like I did today and keeping close to the baseline, more so than I did today."