TORONTO — Milos Raonic wasn’t at his best but was relieved to stay alive at the Rogers Cup.
Despite a serve that was intimidating but not perfect and some erratic play, Raonic won two tiebreaks to beat American Jack Sock 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) on centre court Wednesday night at Rexall Centre.
“All the difficulties getting through that match, facing break points two of my service games consecutively, doing a poor job in converting the chances I had,” Raonic said.
“All those things that maybe if it doesn’t go your way you would’ve said, ’I wish I did this differently, and this and this in these situations,’ all that, let’s say weight that might be on your shoulders, it’s the relief of that just sort of getting off.”
Amid chants of “Let’s Go Milos,” Raonic kept Canadian hope alive in the tournament. On Tuesday, all four men who played singles were eliminated, and Eugenie Bouchard bowed out in Montreal.
Raonic cranked his serve up past 200 kilometres per hour, finishing with 15 aces that helped offset some struggles against Sock, who played some of his best tennis even in defeat. Raonic won 79 per cent of his first-serve points, below his stellar average, and failing to be perfect cost him the first set.
The 23-year-old held serve in the second set before blowing Sock out in the tiebreak. Raonic needed another tiebreak — this one tenser — to finish off the match.
“When you play him, usually when you get down a break, it usually means the set’s over,” Sock said. “That’s why he kind of is where he is though, he kind of comes up big in those moments.”
Raonic is something of a tiebreak specialist, and this match was no different.
“I feel good in those situations,” he said.
“Especially if things are not going throughout the set the way I would’ve liked, I’m not converting opportunities or giving away too many opportunities, I know that if I can get it to a tiebreak I can sort of tip the things in my favour.”
One thing that tipped the scales in Raonic’s favour was the crowd.
Sock loved the “electric” and “fun” atmosphere but not everything he heard.
“A couple of them were a little more rude than I thought,” Sock said. “I thought he got treated pretty well last week in the States, and there were some pretty inappropriate comments tonight.”
Sock blamed himself for missed opportunities, adding that “the fans saying anything didn’t change whether I missed those forehands by two inches or not.”
For his part, Raonic said he has “listened to much worse playing in other countries.”
Julien Benneteau of France awaits Raonic in the third round Thursday night. Benneteau upset 11th-seeded Ernests Gulbis Wednesday after beating former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt in the first round.
Raonic said he didn’t expect his first match at the Rogers Cup to be perfect. Moving forward, he hopes for improvement.
“I expect to play a little bit better tomorrow, but I don’t know what that is,” Raonic said.
By edging Sock, Raonic can keep his recent momentum going. He won last week’s Citi Open in Washington by beating Vancouver’s Vasek Pospisil in the first-ever all-Canadian final a month after becoming the first Canadian to reach the Wimbledon semifinals.
Raonic came into the week tied for his career high in the rankings at No. 6 and now has a chance to keep climbing the ladder.
The man atop those rankings, Novak Djokovic, got pushed to the limit earlier in the day before beating Gael Monfils 6-2, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (2) in an emotional match. Monfils pulled out all the stops by hitting a between-the-legs shot and throwing his racket to hit the ball, and each player tried to ignite the crowd to get louder.
“He’s probably the only guy in the world, tennis player, that I would pay a ticket to watch the match,” Djokovic said of Monfils. “He loves jumping around, sliding, he’s very unpredictable. You don’t know what his next move is, so that’s why he’s so interesting.”
Monfils didn’t endear himself to fans by arguing with chair umpire Gerry Armstrong after receiving a time violation, even as they were captivated by his dazzling play on the court. As a result, Djokovic had support behind him as he came back from a three games to one deficit in the third set.
After finishing off two-hour, 40-minute classic in a lopsided tiebreak, Djokovic fist-pumped and yelled with excitement.
Except for when he chided Armstrong for giving him a warning “for nothing” when he switched his racket, Monfils looked to be enjoying himself for most of the match. The most memorable part of the match was when Monfils threw his racket and kept running without it — for “fun.”
Monfils made Djokovic had to earn this victory.
“He’s simply the best at the moment,” Monfils said of Djokovic. “At some stage of the match, you knew that you could not ace him or have any free points with your serve. This is tough. And then his timing is great, he’s always on time, run good, different attacks. I think he’s just the No. 1 for a reason.”
By avoiding what would’ve been the biggest upset of the tournament thus far, Djokovic kept alive the possibility of facing eighth-seeded Andy Murray in the quarter-finals.
Murray had little trouble winning his opening match in Toronto, as he beat 19-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios 6-2, 6-2 in the first match of the day on centre court. Murray could have a major challenge in the near future in the form of Djokovic.
“It’s a tough draw, but it’s also good to play against someone like a Novak if you get that opportunity in the buildup to the U.S. Open,” said Murray, who gets 12th-seeded Richard Gasquet in the next round. “You really see where your game is at.”
In other action, Gasquet beat hard-serving Ivo Karlovic 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3, fifth-seeded David Ferrer beat American qualifier Michael Russell 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, seventh-seeded Grigr Dimitrov beat Donald Young 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 15th-seeded Marin Cilic beat Malek Jaziri 4-6, 6-0, 7-6 (4), 17th-seeded Tommy Robredo beat Gilles Simon 7-5, 6-4, Kevin Anderson beat 16th-seeded Fabio Fognini 7-5, 6-2, Ivan Dodig beat Andreas Seppi 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (5) and Feliciano Lopez beat Tim Smyczek 7-5, 6-4.
In doubles, Canadian Daniel Nestor and Serbian partner Nenad Zimonjic beat Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 6-4.