WIMBLEDON, England — Andy Murray has certainly had his major moments, none better than becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years.
But there is a dark side to his deep runs in the tournaments that matter most. No man in the nearly 50 years of open tennis has played so many Grand Slam singles finals while winning so few. Murray’s 2-8 record is due to the prodigious drive and talent of two men: Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who between them have been his opponents in all 10 of his previous major finals.
But the 11th will have a radically different look. On Sunday, when Murray trudges — Murray is a trudger — onto Centre Court for his latest Wimbledon final, the big man across the net will be Milos Raonic.
The sixth-seeded Raonic, who knocked out Federer on Friday in a five-set semifinal, is no long-shot newcomer. With his thunderous serve and professional approach, he has been a young threat on the rise for years.
During the 2011 Australian Open, Andy Roddick’s hard-charging agent, Ken Meyerson, who died much too young later that year, pulled me aside on his way to watch Raonic and said, “With this kid’s serve and game, he’s a future Grand Slam contender.”
So it has turned out, but in the age of Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Murray, the road to the top is paved with sweat, patience and a big entourage.
Raonic, who is 25, has now paid his dues (and, it is hoped, his three coaches), and this will be his first major final, which is also one of several reasons the second-seeded Murray deserves to be the favorite.
Another is that Murray — whose returning and counterpunching are second only to Djokovic’s — has beaten Raonic in their last five matches, including the Queen’s Club final on a nearby patch of London grass last month.
However much Murray’s fellow Scots might disagree with Britain’s vote to leave Europe, the All England Club is still home soil for Murray. Whereas Federer would have had plenty of support on Sunday, Raonic, a Canadian with roots in Montenegro, will be playing entirely on the road.
“You face what you have to face,” Raonic said. “First and foremost, I’ve got to face myself, then I’ve got to face Andy. The rest, if I don’t have control over it, I try to make it as irrelevant as possible.”
Raonic is an analytical type; his parents are both engineers. But his power game has also been more mechanical than inspirational: weak on improvisation and adjustments on the fly. He has improved sharply in that area. Some of the points he won at net on Friday amounted to his beating Federer at his own game.
“I thought he volleyed as well as I’ve ever seen him in any match,” said John McEnroe, the three-time Wimbledon champion who has helped Raonic in that department as a coaching consultant for the past month.
It appears he has made a difference, even if Raonic already was playing fine attacking tennis earlier this season under the tutelage of his regular coaches, Riccardo Piatti and Carlos Moya.
Raonic does not mind McEnroe’s getting a big helping of credit if he wins on Sunday. “At the end of the day, I get to win Wimbledon — who cares?” he said.
But it was still strange on Friday to hear McEnroe work his own pupil’s (and employer’s) match as a commentator for the BBC: a clear conflict of interest that made for some awkward if far from dull moments with the semifinal on the line. McEnroe kept it formal for a while, calling him Raonic, but eventually slipped back to Milos even if it was hard to know just how much information and inside perspective he was holding back.
Meanwhile, Raonic was holding back nothing on the grass. His serve — a 21st century tribute to the days when the serve ruled at Wimbledon — remains cruel beauty in motion. He delivers variety along with enormous power, and the Centre Court crowd on Friday, like so many crowds seeing Raonic for the first time, took a few games to process the enormity: oohing as his first-serve speeds of 140 miles per hour or more registered on the on-court screen after impact.
The other barometer was how rushed Raonic made Federer look as he relentlessly launched missiles at his body. Federer is one of the great returners of big serves. His reflexes and racket-head control allow him to make split-second adjustments and block returns into play. He produced more fast-twitch legerdemain on Friday, but many times, his return games looked more like self-defense as Raonic’s serves ricocheted off the hard edges of his racket.
So went the last game of the match, which Raonic won at love with four first serves, only one of which Federer managed to put in play.
It was a big finish to his 6-3, 6-7 (3), 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory. It was also a big hint that Raonic might not experience much stage fright against Murray, whom he flirted with beating in the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open before a leg injury slowed him down.
“Today was a good indication, because the moment could have hit him out there, too, playing Federer, and it really didn’t,” said Paul Annacone, Federer’s former coach. “Milos handled it pretty well, and I expect the same on Sunday.”
It is harder to know what to expect from Federer, with his 35th birthday looming next month along with the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the start of the United States Open. Staying healthy has been a major challenge this season, and his slip and very uncharacteristic heavy fall in the fifth set seemed a further sign that the old rules no longer apply to the Baryshnikov of tennis. There were also two rare on-court visits from the trainer and concern about whether Federer had done further damage to the left knee on which he had his first-ever operation in February.
“He almost never calls a trainer on the court,” said Annacone, still optimistic about Federer’s tennis while concerned about how his body might stand up to a summer of competition.
But Federer, a remarkable champion and ambassador, has clearly earned the right to play on as long as he pleases without much carping from the chattering classes, even if an 18th Grand Slam singles title now looks increasingly unlikely.
James Blake, the retired American who was once part of the top 10 with Federer, watched with empathy as Federer blew a 40-0 lead on his serve to lose the fourth set.
“Two straight double faults; real surprising, but he is human, and as he gets older, it seems to happen to a lot of people that nerves become a little more of a factor,” Blake said. “It’s tough to see, because you think about the possibility that this could have been his last best opportunity.”
Tennis, like life, is a cyclical matter. Seven-time Wimbledon champions fall and new contenders rise to challenge the status quo.
But in light of all the Grand Slam frustration and ambition that the 29-year-old Murray still harbors in his prime, it seems a good bet that Raonic’s toughest task at this year’s Wimbledon lies ahead of him, not behind him.