Roger Federer faced three obstacles Wednesday at the Madrid Masters:
First, there was his inactivity. The last time he stepped on court, Federer walked off a loser to Andy Roddick at the Miami Masters on March 27. The six-week gap was the longest for Federer in his career between Miami and his opening clay-court tournament of the spring.
Second, he had to contend with the much publicized blue courts. After Novak Djokovic's scathing criticism on Tuesday, Rafael Nadal, albeit more tamely, took his own swipe Wednesday. The courts, according to several players, including Nadal, are too slippery.
Third, and equally as daunting, was his young opponent, Milos Raonic. The 21-year-old Canadian is a quick study, looking better on clay this year than last. Raonic reached the semifinals in Barcelona and ousted the dangerous David Nalbandian in the first round in Madrid, hitting 16 aces in the higher altitude of the Spanish capital, not facing a break point and winning all 27 of his first-serve points. Federer dropped a set in Indian Wells to none other than Raonic.
And following a similar break in 2010, Federer tasted defeat in his first match in Rome to a similarly talented -- yet less mentally sound -- opponent, Ernests Gulbis.
But Federer overcame everything in front of him in Madrid, and there was no early exit. Despite winning fewer points overall than Raonic, Federer survived 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4) in one of the most absorbing matches of the season.
Here are a few takeaways:
Fed's attacking game
When Federer took on Nadal in last year's French Open final, he wasn't shy to attack. There was more of Federer going forward Wednesday, although you could argue he did it a little too much. It all began with a successful serve and volley on the third point.
But Federer seemed to be overdoing it in the first game of the second set when he was in trouble, so much so that his box -- which featured the usual suspects -- appeared puzzled.
Raonic knew what was coming, and on separate occasions with Federer serving and volleying, he ripped a backhand down the line on the ad court and one to Federer's feet on the deuce court. Federer hung on and held.
Raonic feasted on a return with Federer moving forward at 5-5 in the second set, another pivotal juncture of the match. Federer blew a 40-0 lead and stared at a break point, yet he was let off the hook by a tentative Raonic return.
However, it should be pointed out that Federer's accurate half-volley at deuce on the next point saved him (even if both players thought the ball was going long), and he fended off a break point in the third set with a lovely backhand drop volley.
He ended the night 19-for-34 at the net.
As to why he approached so often, perhaps he felt uncomfortable moving at the back of the court. In the fifth game of the third set, he looked down at the court in frustration, hands outstretched. Or maybe he felt his balls were flying from the baseline.
Let's see what he does against Richard Gasquet (who could be tired) Thursday.
Raonic picked up where he left off against Nalbandian. He didn't lose a point behind his first serve in the opening set, finally dropping one in the fourth game of the second when he sent an inside out forehand wide. Overall he won 86 percent of his first serve points.
But as the match went on, Federer had a better read on the Raonic serve. When he broke Raonic to end the second, for instance, he began by repelling two first serves with backhand slice returns.
In the tiebreaker, Raonic failed to get a cheap point on serve. At 4-5, credit Federer for making Raonic hit an extra ball (and he sent a forehand long). On the last point, Federer uncorked a stunning crosscourt return.
Yes, the kid is going to be really good
What a difference a year has made in Raonic's clay-court development. Last year in Monte Carlo, to use a well-known expression, he looked like a cow on ice in a crushing loss to David Ferrer.
He was slipping and sliding all over -- without control -- and Ferrer kept going to his backhand, with success. Both aspects have improved. The backhand is no longer a liability. (Raonic tested Ferrer in Barcelona in April, losing in two tiebreaks.)
Raonic is composed, too, although it'd be nice to see him show a little more positive emotion now that he's cut out the negative body language his coach says was an issue in the past. Imagine Raonic, the big guy that he is, offering up a Juan Martin del Potro-like roar.
Raonic's youth, though, was on display on several of the seven break points he didn't convert. (He went 1-for-8, with Federer 1-for-2.) He'll be annoyed, for instance, with the low-percentage backhand down the line he attempted at 2-2 in the third.
Some of the shot-making was breathtaking. Twice in the same game, overheads were picked off for winners: A gorgeous lob landed in the corner and a crosscourt backhand drop shot was a thing of beauty.
But it wasn't Federer who pulled them off. Raonic showed he's more than a serve.
Yes, of course, Federer chipped in, too, hitting a cheeky drop-shot return winner.
Played in good spirits -- mostly
Raonic is a polite young man, which was evidenced in the 11th game of the third. He apologized after a netcord threw Federer off, and on the next point, rubbed out a mark when a linesperson called a Federer serve long before making a correction.
Umpire Mohamed El Jennati got some exercise in the next game, coming out of his chair when Federer asked him to check a mark -- even though Raonic identified the mark and suggested the ball in question was long and El Jennati told Federer from the chair it was long. A few in the crowd jeered.
But when the match ended, rightfully, there was applause for both men.