Raonic and Gulbis lock horns on outer court in Barcelona

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Torrential rain in Barcelona on Wednesday meant that when the fourth round clash between Milos Raonic and Ernests Gulbis finally got under way early this afternoon it was pushed onto court two at the last minute. While court two at Indian Wells or Roland Garros would indicate a stadium of some stature, here at the Reial Club de Tennis Barcelona it means five rows of seats along one courtside, Fernando Versdasco playing doubles along the other and various dignitaries eating lunch above one end.

While neither player are quite regulars on the world’s various show courts, there was a sense that they were having to contend with some environmental challenges that they would prefer to avoid. Gulbis spent much of the first set complaining about a group of girls chattering during points. Raonic’s businesslike approach appeared to be insulating him from distraction but when a massive clattering came from the dining room midway through a point the Canadian lost the point and his temper, telling the umpire “you don’t know what you are doing” when no let was awarded.

While the players may have wished they were over on the Pista Central, the handful of spectators at the start of the match were soon augmented by others as word of the court change spread around the grounds. By the start of the second set it was standing room only,  a development that saw the players unite to complain about crowd movement in the aisles.

For some it was a chance to view the heralded Raonic serve at close quarters. Others were curious as to how Gulbis would play and behave, the Latvian having shown determination to slog through the qualification tournament after his racquet hurling exit from Monte Carlo.

Gulbis was broken in the very first game of the match, which is obviously not ideal against a server of Raonic’s capability. From there Raonic served impeccably, only facing one break point point in the entire match – which he saved. The first set ran out 6-2, but Gulbis brought some heat of his own in the second set and made it to a tiebreak. A microcosm of the entire match, the breaker saw Raonic move convincingly ahead then Gulbis make a contest of it before ceding.

In many ways the players seemed very different to each other. When upset Raonic vented his anger and moved on, in contrast to Gulbis who seemed to add every fresh annoyance to an ever-growing pile of dissatisfaction. Given fair opportunity the Latvian attacked with his backhand up the line; Raonic mainly contained on that wing but got into the net to volley far more than his opponent. There was also a physical contrast with the clean shaven Raonic clad in black while Gulbis sported a beard and light apparel.

Amid the differences there were some shared characteristics including huge first serves and a tendency to offer advice to the umpire. Certainly both men harbour hopes of big titles and high rankings; perhaps with varying degrees of realism. At 24, Gulbis is only a couple of years senior to Raonic but his best performance at a grand slam was back in 2008 (a quarter final at Roland Garros). In the past year Gulbis will have watched the likes of Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov pass him in the rankings with some unease as time for him to hone his undoubted ability into a regular match winning force begins to wane.

Tellingly in today’s match, when both players took each other on forehand to forehand it was Raonic who more frequently took the point; much to Gulbis’s  obvious chagrin. After being on the receiving end of a barrage of consecutive first serves Gulbis offered the opinion to his opponent’s camp that it was “hardly tennis” but Raonic backed up his power with intelligently aggressive point construction and some sublime touch volleying. Many things are possible for the Canadian this summer but first he’ll have to contend with the resurgent Tommy Robredo in both players’ second match of the day.

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