PARIS – Novak Djokovic was just a few points away from losing to Milos Raonic a couple weeks ago in Rome, so it was no surprise that the No. 2 seed at the French Open lavished praise on the eighth-seeded Canadian on Sunday night after both men won their fourth-round matches easily to setup a quarterfinal showdown.
"Milos is playing the tennis of his life," said Djokovic. "He's top-10 now, an established top-10 player. He has one of the best serves in the world. Very powerful, very precise."
Raonic had 17 aces when the two hooked up at the Masters 1000 event in Italy on May 17. Only American John Isner (82) has more aces than Raonic (72) at Roland Garros this year.
"When he serves that well, there is not much you can do, really," said Djokovic, who entered Monday's matches as the tournament leader in break points won (29). "He puts a lot of pressure on his opponent and he has improved a lot from the baseline now. With his backhand, he's hitting down the line, he's very aggressive, which he should be, of course, for somebody of his height and his build. You know, he's powerful and he uses that serve. Forehand is also very good from back of the court. So there is an evident improvement in his game and he feels more confident on the court. You can feel that. The recent match we had in Rome, as you mentioned, was very close."
Djokovic lost the first set in a tiebreaker at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia before edging Raonic in a second-set tiebreaker and winning the third and deciding set 6-3. After the three-hour battle of wills, Djokovic said he could not remember the last time he felt as helpless in the return game.
"I don't expect anything different now," he said after a straight-set victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga Sunday. "You know, I know that I'm going to have to face somebody that is going to serve over 200 kilometers per hour in average throughout the whole match. But I'm ready for that."
Raonic, meanwhile, is also feeling confident after becoming the first Canadian man to ever reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam singles competition (in the Open era). Raonic admitted he would not have thought his breakthrough would come on the red clay in Paris, but noted he has made some subtle adjustments this year to improve his game on the slower surface.
"The biggest difference I have made this year is not really making too much of a difference when I have come to the clay," the 23-year-old explained. "Just more of an approach, knowing more balls will come back, but trying to stay close, not going too far back, and all these kind of things. I have tried to sort of keep that, I was doing it on hard courts, and it's been working out well for me."
But Raonic is well aware of the challenge that now lays before him. Djokovic badly wants to win the title here in order to complete the career slam.
"I think it's more so just a mental aspect of keeping up a certain level for that long and not allowing yourself to drift away," Raonic said when asked what the key is when facing such a strong opponent in a best-of-five format. "But he also makes that demanding of you in two out of three sets. It's just about doing it a little bit longer and bringing your best tennis. Obviously, that's important."
Raonic and Djokovic have had a congenial relationship on tour due in part to their shared Serbian heritage. Born in Podgorica, Montenegro in 1990, Raonic and his family relocated to Toronto in 1994.
"We have a good relationship. Very friendly. Same type of cultural upbringing and background, so we understand each other a lot, especially because of the language, as well," Raonic said.
"So we get along well."