THE hardest thing in tennis – perhaps in all of sport – is to back up one big win with another, especially when the win in question is the high point of your career so far.
That is true whether we are talking about the whole defence of a title, in Andy Murray’s case, or the bid to build on victory over Rafael Nadal by taking the scalp of Milos Raonic too, in the case of Nick Kyrgios.
The Australian teenager was bouncing around with energy on Tuesday night after beating world No 1 Nadal in a match that was hailed as the best at this year’s Wimbledon by some distance. And his record in the earlier rounds suggested he might still have enough energy to get the better of No 8 seed Raonic in the last of this year’s quarter-finals: after being taken to five sets by Richard Gasquet in the second round, Kyrgios followed that up with a four-set win over Jiri Vesely, shrugging off any slight doubts he might have had on losing the first set.
But Raonic is an altogether more difficult opponent than Vesely. And the win over Nadal made headlines around the world, whereas the defeat of Gasquet was seen primarily as further proof of the Frenchman’s notorious faintheartedness.
More pertinently, on the evidence of yesterday’s match, Raonic is now also, on grass at least, a more difficult opponent than Nadal, for whom the loss to Kyrgios was a third early exit in as many years.
The Australian got off to an inspired start, and took the first set on a tiebreak. But Raonic, at 23, four years older than his opponent, had too much firepower after that, and won through 6-7, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 to set up a semi-final tomorrow against Roger Federer.
Afterwards, Kyrgios was as crestfallen in defeat as he had been exultant in victory 24 hours earlier, and admitted that he had not had enough recovery time to give of his best. “I think it had a pretty big impact,” he said. “I was struggling physically about halfway through the second set. I was feeling sore in a couple of places. But I’m not going to take any credit away from him – he served unbelievably.
“I woke up this morning and it [the victory over Nadal] had sunk in. It was such a great achievement. That’s something that no-one can take away from me – I’m always going to have that now.
“I thought I played a strong first set today – I just couldn’t maintain that level. What he brought today was something special, I thought.”
If you judge by appearances, it is easy to overlook just how special Raonic is. He looks so clean-cut, so run of the mill, by comparison with the more exuberant Kyrgios. In future, of course, it will be the tennis skills of the pair that are compared, and although this was only their second meeting – the Canadian has now won both – it is a fledgling rivalry that could develop into something substantial.
Certainly, while Raonic is already in the big league, Kyrgios is now likely to spend some time adjusting to his new-found celebrity. He has the self-awareness to do so successfully, as he showed when asked what his success here told him about what he can achieve in future.
“Tells me there’s a lot of room for improvement,” he answered. “But at the same time, there’s something special I have that can make it deep into Grand Slams. I’m doing it at 19. I think I can go a bit further.
“I’m just going to do whatever I can. Work hard, give great effort. When I’m back home, I’m going to spend about a week and a half at home now and do a training block in Melbourne. I’m just going to do whatever I can.”
Raonic is an altogether less effusive character, and his assessment of the match betrayed no hint of excitement about making it to the last four. “It was a very difficult match,” he said. “I’m happy with the result.”
Don’t write off his chances of being even happier after he meets Federer tomorrow. As far as Raonic is concerned – and he thinks other members of his peer group feel the same way – the former champion and the other members of the big four no longer have an aura of invincibility.
“It’s yours for the taking if you play well,” he said when asked to sum up his feelings about matches with the game’s leading quartet. Had the 19-year-old Kyrgios won, he would have been in exalted company in the record books. He would have become the youngest player to reach the semi-finals at a Grand Slam since Nadal at the French Open in 2005, and the youngest in the last four at Wimbledon since Goran Ivanisevic in 1990.
But never mind the record books. He is about to leave his current world ranking of 144 behind, and move into exalted company for real, not just as a statistical quirk. Raonic has beaten him into the semi-finals, but time is on his side.
Meanwhile Novak Djokovic was taken to five sets by Croatian opponent Marin Cilic before finally winning 6-1, 3-6, 6-7, 6-2, 6-2.
The Serb has not had an easy passage through the tournament, but he showed his class after going two sets to one down and dropped only four games as he powered his way into the last four.
Federer was also tested by Swiss compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka, who outplayed the seven-times Wimbledon champion to take the first set.
But Federer drew from his reserves of big-match experience to win the second-set tie-break, and that proved the turning point of the match as he used the momentum to take the next two sets on the way to a 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-4, 6-4 victory.