A Baffled Facade

Montreal Masters, Quarterfinals

(W) Pospisil d. Davydenko, 3/0 ret.

(11) Raonic d. Gulbis, 7/6 4/6 6/4

(1) Djokovic d. (7) Gasquet, 6/1 6/2

(4) Nadal d. (Q) Matosevic, 6/2 6/4

Two Canadian players have reached the semifinals of the Montreal Masters, an event so rare that it hasn’t happened since before either of the players were born. Given that these two young men are drawn to play each other, Canada is guaranteed to have a finalist for the first time in the Open Era, which is to say since before even Tommy Haas was born. To suggest that no one expect this is barely to say anything at all: it was only a few days ago that we marvelled when the home nation contrived to send five of its men through to the second round. Whether a local can actually win the tournament remains a dicey question. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North AmericaLurking in the draw’s other half are Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, who will face each other for the thirty-sixth time. That should be all the perspective one needs.

The two Canadian semifinalists are the twenty-three-year-old Vasek Pospisil, considered a promising youngster, and the twenty-two-year-old Milos Raonic, a top player in whom fans have already found myriad ways to be disappointed. Yesterday, facing Juan Martin del Potro, Raonic discovered a way to inspire disappointment on both a new level and a vastly expanded scale. You probably know the story already: leading by a set and locked at 4/4 and deuce, the Canadian put away a winner only for his foot to touch the net while play was live, which usually means automatic loss of the point. Unfortunately the umpire’s attention had wavered, and he missed the crucial touch. It wasn’t missed by Raonic, however, whose face registered first annoyance, then wonder that he’d gotten away with it. Nor was it missed by del Potro, who remonstrated justifiably yet fruitlessly with the umpire, incarnated at that moment by Mohamed Lahyani. (I was immediately reminded of last year’s Indian Wells quarterfinal, when the Argentine was robbed of a point by a combination of Mo’s inattentiveness and a Hawkeye malfunction, inspiring a set-long meltdown.)

Nor was Raonic’s transgression missed by the worldwide audience, which made its feelings known with typical reticence. Forums and social media lit up, the way swamp gas can at the merest spark, and furious debate has ensued. At one end of the argument are those who believe that Raonic cheated, and should thus be taken to with white-hot pincers. There have been summary proclamations that he will never be supported again. But insofar as cheating and lapses in sportsmanship are not the same thing, one can be innocent of the former and guilty of the latter. At the other end are those who hold that it isn’t the player’s job to adjudicate such matters, and that if the umpire missed it, then so be it. There’s no real need to engage with a species of argument that was already considered self-evidently fatuous by Cato the Younger, except to point out that there are real consequences for eroding the moral high-ground, one of which is to diminish the joy of the contest. Beyond that, however, is the consideration that it hardly matters. Del Potro himself briefly vented about it, but has presumably moved on. Those vengeful souls still toiling on his behalf should really do the same, as should those still mounting stout defences of Raonic. I’m sure he’s fine, and doesn’t particularly care what social media thinks. (Tut-tutting disapproval is the default setting on the internet, and if it is going to rise to anything it is generally only to heights of opprobrium, usually heaped in steaming piles. Folks who spend a lot of time on social media, especially Twitter, are very prone to exaggerating its importance.)

In any case, it didn’t seem to affect Raonic today. He was admittedly patchy in seeing off an even patchier Gulbis in three sets, but then he’s been patchy all year. There were some great moments in the match, but these were largely submerged in the torrent of double-faults and weak errors from both men, too many of which came consecutively and at crucial moments. Meanwhile Pospisil was marvellous for three games, at which point Nikolay Davydenko withdrew, citing bronchitis. Raonic and Pospisil have never met at tour level, but they did play a few times in Futures and Challengers. Pospisil leads 3-1, and, having already proven his ability to handle colossal serves, is thus a reasonable chance to reach his first Tour final, at a Masters event. That hasn’t happened in, well, months, since Jerzy Janowicz in Paris. Last week Pospisil was ranked outside the top seventy. Even if he loses tomorrow he’ll reach the top forty. If he wins he has a good chance at a US Open seeding. There are around seven billion people on this planet, and I doubt whether any of them saw that coming, though many of them probably hadn’t given it adequate thought.

Djokovic later moved through after defeating Richard Gasquet in a replay of last year’s final that was even easier than everyone expected, which is saying something: the world number one was already on an eleven set winning streak against this particular opponent. Djokovic had been curiously flat against Denis Istomin last night, but today was excellent. Gasquet as ever was masterful in removing his own form from the equation. It hardly matters how well you play when you retreat that far behind the baseline, especially against a guy with the proven capacity to control the baseline against Nadal on clay. Faced merely with Gasquet on a mid-paced hardcourt, Djokovic was merciless, and never once troubled. The commentators initially concealed their disgust behind a mask of bafflement, but even that façade slipped when the graphic flashed up that the Frenchman had so far ventured inside the baseline precisely never. The whole thing was over in fifty-one minutes.

His opponent safely dispatched, Djokovic got on with the evening’s real entertainment by dancing again for the delirious crowd. They evidently didn’t share my wish that he’d work out some new material. Like crowds everywhere, Montreal’s treasures matched expectations more than novelty. Tomorrow Djokovic will face Nadal, who had no trouble whatsoever beating Marinko Matosevic. I wonder if Djokovic will dance if he wins that one. I imagine he won’t if he doesn’t. He’s as gracious a loser as I’ve ever seen, but there are limits.


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