We’re at the halfway mark of the National Bank Open presented by Rogers and the quarter-finals are set in Toronto.
This morning, Canada’s last remaining singles player, Milos Raonic, got in a quick hit on Centre Court ahead of his match with Mackenzie McDonald. Warming-up Raonic and many of the pros this week was young Canadian tennis player Willam Bartram, who plays ITF events all over the world.
This week, he’s hit with the likes of Daniil Medvedev, Lorenzo Musetti and has also warmed-up Raonic for all three of his matches. I asked Bartram if he felt a sense of pride knowing he’s helped prepare the Canadian for his victories so far.
“A little bit, yeah. It’s cool to see him back and injury free. When you hit with a player and he wins, it’s pretty cool.”
I asked him what it was like facing a serve like Raonic’s compared to what he’s used to facing on the ITF Tour and Bartram replied, “It’s pretty lethal. It bounces like crazy high and hits his spots so well. Even when he tells me where it’s going I can’t even return it sometimes!” I’m sure many of the top pros on the ATP would say something similar.
It wasn’t meant to be however for Milos today when he stepped out to face McDonald in the opening match of the day on Centre Court. His serve lacked the pop we had seen in his opening round victories over Frances Tiafoe and Taro Daniel as it consistently fell below the 200 kph mark. His nine aces were fewer than his previous totals of 37 and 15 respectively in those two earlier matches.
After the match, I asked Milos in particular about the dip in his service performance today and he shared the following thoughts:
“I just didn’t have that same kind of speed on the serve that I needed to and it’s just a buildup over the last few matches and these kinds of things. I needed to be better in that case and I wasn’t able to be”
McDonald for his part did not seem bothered by whatever firepower Milos could muster. His return numbers were terrific including winning 70 per cent of the points when facing the Raonic second serve. The American is now into his first-ever Masters 1000 level quarter-final and will face Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
Despite the loss, Raonic should be encouraged by his overall play this week, making it further in the draw than most expected. He’s now 4-3 since returning to the ATP Tour after a nearly two-year absence and, with his win over Tiafoe in particular, served notice that when he’s feeling good on a tennis court, he’s a player nobody will want to face. Next up for Raonic is the Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati followed by the US Open.
Stepping back from the match results from today, I had the pleasure of speaking with NBO Ball Crew Captain and Selection Committee member Priscilla Bulandres about the squad that she’s responsible for here at the event this year.
Priscilla was a Ball Crew member years ago and also participated last night with the “Legends” crew where she and some former members of the team came back to work the Holger Rune vs Marcos Giron match. It’s become a fun annual tradition for graduated members who come back to work the second match of the Wednesday night session.
For those with young kids who might be interested in becoming a Ball Kid, you have to be between 11-16 years of age. Prospects go through a tryout in the Spring that first involves testing their coordination and foot speed followed by a second round where they are put in real match situations and are evaluated. This year there were 25 new recruits making their NBO debuts.
“They’ve been really good,” Bulandres said about the new recruits so far this year. “We’ve been really surprised with their level of technical skils, their ability to throw, catch and run. It’s been a very, very good year for rookies and looks very tidy on court.”
One special moment for the young ball crew this week during the tournament was when they were surprised by Denis Shapovalov, who despite not playing the NBO this year, dropped by to chat with them and sign some autographs. Bulandres was there for the exchange and had the following observation about why Shapo take the time to do these types of things with his fans.
“He was not a ball kid, but he knows what it’s like to be a tennis fan and being completely star-struck by your idols on the court. I think he just gravitates to the kids knowing that they look up to him and making sure that every single person gets acknowledged, gets an autograph and a photo. He’s fantastic to the kids.”
In other on-court action, the final Canadian fell later in the day as Vasek Pospisil and partner Nicolas Mahut were defeated in doubles by the sixth-seeded tandem of Tim Putz and Kevin Krawietz.
In the evening session, the big match of the night did not disappoint as No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz took on 15th seed Hubert Hurkacz. “Hubi” as his many Polish fans in Toronto like to call him, started well by taking the opening set. Would there be yet another upset here at the NBO this week?
The middle frame then went to a tiebreak where Alcaraz dialled up his play and took it routinely. In the final set the Spaniard built on that momentum and raced away to a 5-2 lead before Hurkacz dug deep and refused to go quietly. He erased not one, but two breaks of service against him and the set remarkably went yet again to a tiebreak. However, whatever fragility we saw from Alcaraz in the final few games of the third set disappeared and the No. 1 proved exactly why he holds that ranking. He dialed in his game and took the match 3-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(3).
Fans can breathe a sigh of relief that the recent Wimbledon champ is still alive in the draw. He will face Tommy Paul in the quarter-finals.
One thing is for sure, Alcaraz has brought a rock-star/celebrity vibe to the city. The place is absolutely electric when he steps out on court and there’s a buzz around the grounds that in the past has only been reserved for the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic when the men have been in town. Too soon to anoint him their successor quite yet, but the fans have already made an early call on that front it seems!