Canada's Milos Raonic had a theory about how his quarter-final match with Ukraine's Alexander Dolgopolov at the BNP Paribas Open Thursday might unfold – that the winner would ultimately be the player who forced his will on his opponent and dictated the style of play. Raonic needed to serve well and keep Dolgopolov, one of the hottest players on the tour at the moment, from getting into any kind of rhythm.
Unhappily for Raonic, he couldn't quite manage that.
Returning brilliantly right from the start of the match, Dolgopolov raced out to a 3-0 lead and won the opening set in 29 minutes and then rallied from a 3-0 second-set deficit to win the match in straight sets 6-3, 6-4.
It was a match in which Raonic had a number of chances to get back on even terms in the second set, but couldn't win the key points when needed. A pivotal turning point came in the endless fifth game of the second set when Raonic recovered from a love-40 deficit on his own serve and twice had a chance to win the game, only to double fault.
In all, Raonic saved four break points in that game alone and six in all in the second set, but Dolgopolov's ability to return consistently earned him crucial service breaks in the fifth and seventh games – something that ultimately decided the match in his favour.
"I thought he did a lot of things well," said Raonic. "I thought I did a lot of things well as well. I really was pushing myself, because I was hoping that if I forced myself to stay strong with an attitude that the game would come.
"I just wish I could have served better. But other than that, he did the right things at the right times right away from the start of the match. He was a factor of why I didn't serve as well as I would have liked as well."
Raonic served up 59 aces in winning his first three matches of the tournament, but managed only four against Dolgopolov.
"First serve of the match, 141 [miles per hour]; returns deep," said Raonic, rhyming off the points. "Thirty all in the first game, 145 into the body; returns it even harder than I served it to him.
"He made me think more than most people can on my service games."
So Raonic had to content himself with his deepest foray into this tournament and his strongest performance of the new season, a reasonable result considering he'd been off the tour since the Australian Open, recovering from a leg injury. Raonic won matches over Edouard Roger-Vasselin, Alejandro Falla and No. 5 seeded Andy Murray to get to the quarter-finals of a Masters 1000 level tour event for the fourth time in his career.
"Coming here, if anybody sort of offered me a signed piece of paper to say, 'Would you like to be in the quarter-finals this week,' especially with what I have been struggling with and how much more I would have liked to have prepared for the event, I would have signed that sheet right away," said Raonic.
With a win, Raonic would have returned to the top-10 in the men's rankings for the first time since he made it to the finals of the Rogers Cup in Montreal last summer.
It was a stop-and-start sort of match and at one point, early in the second set, Dolgopolov seemed a little out of sorts. But the 25-year-old Ukrainian, known for his occasionally spectacular shot-making and equally spectacular ability to miss big, has a little bit more of a varied game. The longer the points went, the more often they went his way. Dolgopolov managed to get only 53 per cent of his first serves in and was critical of his serve overall, but he won 26 of 29 points when he got the first ball in, largely because of strong baseline play.
At 3-3 in the second set, Dolgopolov also making a couple of passing shots on the dead run that helped him break Raonic and cruise the rest of the way.
"I was quite fast today," said Dolgopolov. "I was really happy with that. And I was able to get more returns than usually you can against him. You know, he serves really big and I knew I had to do that, and I'm quite pleased how I anticipated on his serve and have seen the toss of the ball and was really, really concentrated to get those serves back."
Dolgopolov has made the biggest jump in the top-50 ATP rankings since the close of 2013, moving to No. 31 from 57 and he will go to 23 after this victory – and perhaps higher, depending upon how he fares in the semifinal against either Switzerland's Roger Federer or South Africa's Kevin Anderson, who were scheduled to play in the second men's quarter-final later in the day.
In the other half of the draw, top-seeded Serb Novak Djokovic will play unseeded Julien Benneteau of France while No. 12 John Isner of the United States plays No. 20 Ernests Gulbis of Latvia in quarter-final matches scheduled for Friday.
Dolgopolov now has six victories in eight outings against top-20 opponents this season and won perhaps the match of his career in the third round, eliminating top-seeded Rafael Nadal.
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