For decades, Canadian tennis fans have watched those epic night matches at the U.S. Open for which this Grand Slam event is best known.
Finally, on Labour Day, they got to see one of their own involved in one of these dramatic scenes.
It was Milos Raonic against Richard Gasquet of France, a match that was supposed to be contested much earlier in the day but, like many other matches, was pushed back into the evening.
What started just after suppertime, however, took four hours and 40 minutes to complete, and ended in disappointment for the 22-year-old Raonic.
But that disappointment shouldn’t linger. Nor should a single Canadian question what the best player in the country’s history accomplished on this night.
Against the No. 8 player in the world – Raonic is No. 11 – the Canadian gave as good as he got, exchanging blow for blow with the older Frenchman, matching his howitzer serve against Gasquet’s marvellous backhand.
Raonic led two sets to one, was up a break in the fourth set and later had a match point in the tiebreak, but the match ended up going five sets before Gasquet prevailed 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 2-6, 7-6 (9), 7-5 in what was the match of the day at Flushing Meadows.
Perhaps Roger Federer’s shocking straight-sets loss to veteran Spaniard Tommy Robredo will garner more headlines, for this may have been the match that truly signalled the end of Federer’s legendary brilliance.
With 17 Grand Slam titles in his hip pocket, Federer won’t win a single one in 2013 and has been able to get as far as the semifinals in only the Australian Open. He has captured one of the past 15 majors played, and by losing to Robredo missed out on one last big slugfest with Rafael Nadal.
For sheer entertainment, however, the Raonic-Gasquet clash was far more memorable, a war waged in humid conditions on a packed Court 17 that left both men gassed by the end.
Raonic, trying to make it to his first ever Grand Slam quarter-final, delivered a very strong performance, right up there in value with his effort against another Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, at the 2012 London Olympics in which he lost 25-23 in the deciding set.
Against Gasquet, Raonic hit more aces, a career-high 39 to just six, and more winners, 102-45. But he made far more unforced errors, plus 11 double faults hindered his performance. For those tracking Raonic’s efforts under new coach Ivan Ljubicic to play more aggressively, he attacked the net 69 times, winning 68 per cent of his forays forward.
Much of the match pitted Raonic trying to use his inside-out forehand and Gasquet defending with his backhand, among the best in the game. But there were many different scenarios, and at times Raonic, with Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista in the stands urging him on, demonstrated a nimbleness around the court that was noteworthy.
The point that will haunt Raonic came in the fourth-set tiebreak. With Raonic ahead 8-7, Gasquet faced match point as he swung Raonic wide to his backhand. While the Canadian’s direction was accurate, he hit the ball just fraction long.
But for that inch or two, he would be in the quarter-finals on Wednesday against David Ferrer, not Gasquet.
Instead, Gasquet went on to win that tiebreak, and in the fifth and deciding set, he kept shoving Raonic up against the proverbial wall. Raonic couldn’t break Gasquet, and had to hold service from deficits of 0-40, 15-40 and 0-30 before finally being broken at love in the 11th game of the set.
Gasquet, 27, a mercurial figure throughout his career, had made it to only one other Grand Slam quarter-final six years earlier and for many years those who doubted him primarily questioned his fitness.
On this occasion, however, he was a little steadier over the five sets, and while both men looked as though they’d been for a dip in the pool when it was over, it was Raonic who appeared more exhausted despite, oddly enough, winning 12 more points on the night than his opponent.
Still, it was a magical night, and a terrific performance by Raonic, who showed on this night he could dig deep and battle with one of the better players on the ATP tour on one of the biggest stages in tennis.
He’ll now get almost two weeks off being leading Canada into an intriguing Davis Cup semifinal match against Serbia in Belgrade.
He’ll be able to use the rest. That said, he’d much rather be massively fatigued and preparing to face Ferrer.