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Novak Djokovic finds a way to edge past Milos Raonic yet again

The Guardian logo The Guardian 16-11-2016 Kevin Mitchell at the O2 Arena
Novak Djokovic on his way to a spirited defeat of Milos Raonic on Tuesday night. © PA Novak Djokovic on his way to a spirited defeat of Milos Raonic on Tuesday night.

Novak Djokovic, eight times out of 10 for most of his career, has found a way. On Tuesday night he did it again with tennis which he admitted was short of his best but palpably too good for the eighth time in a row against Milos Raonic.

The Serb served two timely aces – one to save a break point in the first set, another to grab match point in a tie-break for the second – and soaked up 14, proving too strong in the moments that mattered to punish the Canadian’s lack of rigour and win 7-6, 7-6 in 2¼ hours on day three of the ATP World Tour Finals in Greenwich.

Victory put him straight into the weekend semi-finals of a tournament he has won four times in a row – and he may well make mincemeat of the out-of-sorts and injured Gaël Monfils in his last round‑robin match. Raonic goes into an uncomplicated shootout with Dominic Thiem for second place in the Ivan Lendl group.

“I should have done my job earlier, to be honest,” Djokovic said, expressing frustration at dropping his serve twice in the second set, but he rightly observed: “All in all, two tie-breaks against a big server is a great win and a great confidence boost.”

It is odd to hear Djokovic, the world No1 since mid-2014 until unseated by Andy Murray in Paris last weekend, talking about a need to create confidence but these are strange times for him.

He has objected vociferously to the suggestion since he arrived in London but he has not looked himself on the court or in fencing with the media. Until Tuesday night. The scary certainty of his demeanour remains slightly mellowed, and the sharp eye did not seem so finely focused in some key moments ... but he finds a way.If there were problems lurking unidentified beyond the court, he sought comfort in a walk in Hyde Park earlier in the day with his young son, then in the familiar refuge in the workplace where he has been comfortable for most of his life. This is where he would work it out.

It was never going to be a nuanced exchange, and both players opened their shoulders from the start. Raonic, hitting harder and with unalloyed confidence, got a look on the quarter-hour but Djokovic saved two break points and fought through deuce to hold for 2-1. He was seriously annoyed when the chair interrupted his serve at 15-15, 5-5, because someone had flashed their mobile phone camera light, but he got it done and the pressure was back on Raonic to force the first tie-break.

As Greg Rusedski, no slouch with ball in hand, observed, “This is the best chance for Raonic, in the tie-breakers, if he is going to win this match.” He led 4-2, trailed 3-5, got a break on a challenge for 4-5, smashed third-time lucky to equalise, got lobbed to hand Djokovic set point, bullied his way in a long, quality exchange for 6-6, butchered a return on a 77mph second serve for 6-7, then, after 64 minutes of even struggle, double-faulted to gift Djokovic the set.

Djokovic broke and held through deuce to widen the gap at the start of the second set. Raonic got on the board with a ninth ace, holding to love to avoid what would have been a terminal second break, and shocked the Serb with two exquisite winners on either wing to break back in the fifth game – only the third time he had managed that in their seven matches.

Rivals need more than just “game” to beat Djokovic, though; they have to bring rock-solid self-belief, calm, steadiness under pressure, and mongrel instinct. Raonic has those assets, but they did not all kick in at the right time, and Djokovic made him crack again.

However, orderly progress slithered to a halt when he stopped in the shot and netted to gift Raonic a break-back for 4-4. He motioned to his box, touching the right arm that has troubled him in the latter half of the season, shrugging his shoulders and appearing slightly woebegone again. It was a curious and unexpected dip just when he was pushing towards a win.

Now, after nearly two hours of uneven but engrossing tennis, it was his turn to force a tie-break. An inexplicably rash backhand gave Raonic set point but he wasted it with equal lack of discipline.

There was little in the second tie-break most of the way, Djokovic giving Raonic hope with a double-fault, but a quite amazing backhand winner in the 10th game opened the door to the inevitable, and Raonic, after missing his first serve, succumbed to the pressure and shoved his final backhand into the tramlines.

Earlier, Thiem, the young Austrian with the mature game who lost to Djokovic on Sunday when nerves gripped his racket after he had taken the first set, survived a mid-match collapse to beat the unpredictable Monfils, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4.

In a stirring doubles performance, Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares played like champions to beat the brothers who have worn that mantle for so long, Mike and Bob Bryan, 6-3, 6-4 in a tick over an hour. The Scotland/Brazil pairing are looking good to reach and win the final on Sunday.

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