I always figured there was nothing in sports quite like facing Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan or any storied pitcher with a blinding fastball and an equally devastating curve. It becomes a guessing game, with a chance to look so totally overmatched, you might consider another line of work.
After watching big-time tennis for a number of years, I think I've found the equivalent: standing in against a world-class server who not only has a wicked kick delivery in his arsenal, but has no fear of using it under any circumstances. I'm seeing a bit of that in Milos Raonic, the 20-year-old Canadian whose prodigious talent has taken the sport by storm. In his second-round match Sunday at Indian Wells, Mardy Fish was the helpless-looking guy on the other side of the net.
Fish actually comported himself well against Raonic's thunderous, unpredictable serves, getting many of them back in play with a measure of authority, but in the match's crucial moments, Raonic turned into Koufax, or Bob Gibson, or Tim Lincecum. He became unhittable.
At some point today, we'll know how Raonic fared against 18-year-old Ryan Harrison, the best of America's up-and-coming teenagers. We know this already: Raonic turned Fernando Verdasco, one of the world's top players, into a muttering, excuse-making defeatist after two recent conquests. He beat Fish in a three-setter in the Memphis semifinals. On Sunday, Fish had a much better idea what he was up against -- but the additional knowledge didn't help. Raonic pulled out a 7-5, 6-4 victory that added a couple of layers to his growing reputation.
Raonic apologized to Fish afterward for taking such an extended break for physical treatment (sore lower back) in the first set. That was a classy move on Raonic's part, but more to the point, it's remarkable to think he played that second set at something less than 100 percent.
Fish had one real shot to take control of that match, holding a set point at 5-4 in the first set, and he badly netted a backhand. Raonic, whose meteoric rise came from nowhere (he was playing Futures events as recently as last year), made no mistake in closing it out. Fast-forward now to Raonic serving for the match at 5-4, but Fish holding a break point at 30-40.
On any given first serve, Raonic is likely to unleash a flat, penetrating, 140-m.p.h. bullet that he can place to either wing. But you're never quite sure; he's likely to throw a changeup at the unlikeliest time. Sure enough, Raonic chose this moment to use the kick on his first serve, a radically-bouncing thing that removed any chance of a wheelhouse backhand return. Fish sailed it long, and when Fish earned himself another break point a few moments later, the exact same thing happened.
Raonic blew a chance to finish off the match when he scuffed a fairly routine forehand volley on his first match point. But when the second one came around, you wondered what was going through Fish's mind. Could he dare gamble on the kick option, maybe get a jump on connecting with a high backhand return? It seemed a reasonable thought, but Raonic unleashed the hammer, and an off-balance Fish could only float a backhand that Raonic drilled right into the winner's circle with a punishing forehand.
Raonic has a lot of things going for him: youth, brazen confidence, and an increasingly big game off both wings, especially the forehand. It's the unpredictability of his serve, and his utter lack of fear, that has really drawn people's attention.
Looking elsewhere at Indian Wells:
As Saturday's play unfolded, the network inexplicably ignored a couple of spectacular episodes in American tennis. It should have been evident, early on, that Donald Young was throwing a big-time scare into Andy Murray on Stadium 2. But TC stayed glued to Del Potro-Ljubicic, with an occasional taste of Ferrer-Karlovic, to the point where the Young-Murray match wasn't shown until Young had a 5-4 lead in the first-set tiebreaker.
Even after Young won that set, TC failed to grasp the significance. We didn't get another glimpse of the match until Murray was down 5-3 and about to go down. "This would be huge," said the tremendously boring Tracy Austin (she's no Mary Carillo) a few points before the finish. Wow, no kidding.
I'll admit, going into the tournament, I had no interest in watching Young. Not after seing him fall so horribly short in character-revealing matches over the years. But when the tide starts turning toward an upset of this magnitude, somebody has to notice. And TC didn't stop there, showing only a few seconds of Harrison's epic win over Guillermo Garcia-Lopez -- the 152nd-ranked player beating No. 25.