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The Missile Finds Its Mark

DEUCE EXTRA

Milos Raonic© Mark LyonsMilos Raonic has made a meteoric rise in just the first couple months of the 2011 ATP World Tour season, breaking into the Top 40.

Twenty-year-old Canadian Milos Raonic has made a big splash in just the first two months of the 2011 ATP World Tour season, with a booming serve and newfound maturity driving his meteoric rise in the rankings. 

Asked how his friends might describe him, Milos Raonic points out there are “two aspects of me.” Away from tennis, he is subdued, relaxed, just another 20 year old who enjoys watching escapist comedies like “Due Date” and “Hangover”.

According to Raonic, “I don’t get too emotional away from the tennis court.” And on the tennis court, at least of late, he’s done a fine job of keeping calm.

But it’s not always so easy to put this principle into practice. Head back to February and the SA Tennis Open in Johannesburg – the first tournament Raonic played after his breakout run to the round of 16 at the Australian Open. Playing Simon Greul, Raonic found himself frustrated, and began to whine, mope and sabotage his competitive effort. Soon enough, invariably, he lost. But the outcome wasn’t what mattered to Raonic’s coach, former pro Galo Blanco. It was the process.

Blanco promptly drew a line in the sand. To lose, he said, was one thing. But to show such disrespect – not just for himself, not just to the game, but to Blanco as well – was unacceptable. 'If you don’t shape up,' said Blanco, 'I won’t bother coming to San Jose with you.' Instantly, Raonic saw the light. Said Raonic, “I need to do things that help me compete well, not things that do nothing to help me.”

RaonicLight travels at the speed of 186,000 miles per second. While Raonic can’t match that, it’s uncertain which supersonic aspect of this Canadian’s tennis life is more impressive: the serve that regularly tops 140 miles per hour or the remarkable way he’s made his way up the South African Airways 2011 ATP Rankings. From January 1 to February 20, across four continents – Asia, Australia, Africa and North America – Raonic made one of the biggest splashes in recent tennis history, rising from World No. 156 at the start of 2011 to No. 37. In only his eighth ATP World Tour main draw appearance, Raonic claimed his first ATP World Tour singles title at the SAP Open in San Jose, then followed it up the next week with a runner-up showing at the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis.

Raonic’s Memphis final versus Andy Roddick was arguably the most compelling ATP World Tour match of the year to date. After losing the first set in a tie-break, Raonic fought off three championship points in a second-set tie-break, at last winning it 13-11. Down 1-4 in the third, he rallied again to level the match. At 5-6, facing championship point number five, Raonic angled a volley – and Roddick struck one of the greatest shots of his career, a lunging forehand down-the-line winner.

"He's as exciting of a talent as we've seen in a while. You won't surprise me if he's Top 10 sooner than later."

But for the second week in a row, Raonic had played superb tennis. He’d served a tournament record 129 aces, including 32 versus Roddick. According to Roddick, “He's as exciting of a talent as we've seen in a while. You won't surprise me if he's Top 10 sooner than later.”

Amazingly, when 2011 began, Raonic had played in the main draw of only four ATP World Tour events. Seeded 26th in the qualifying of the Australian Open, he squeaked his way into the main draw with a tight 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 win over 177th-ranked Andrej Martin. There followed a run to the round of 16, Raonic’s victims including 24th-ranked Michael Llodra and Top 10 player Mikhail Youzhny.

Two weeks later, Raonic sat on a couch in the press room at the SAP Open in San Jose. “Australia was fun,” he said. “A lot of people made sure I didn’t get ahead of myself.” As Raonic reflected further on how he’d played well in Melbourne and took in the surroundings of an ATP World Tour event, his energy rose. “When you tell yourself you want to be a tennis player at a young age, it’s these tournaments you think of,” said Raonic. “These are the ones you dream of playing.”

RaonicLike many of his peers, Raonic has indeed given tennis his share of thought. Even more importantly, hours and hours of time. At the age of eight, attending a summer camp, Raonic held a racquet and it was love at first ball. The Blackmore Tennis Club (BTC) in Richmond Hill, Ontario was one key training spot during Raonic’s formative years. Said Casey Curtis, the coach who Raonic worked with well into his late teens, “I told him he’d have to work on the ball machine if he wanted to get good enough to be with the better players – and to his credit, he did just that.”

By day, Raonic’s father Dusan continued to work at his job as a nuclear engineer. But before and after his long shifts, the father did something the son finds deeply commendable. “Our parents were devoted to helping their children reach our dreams,” said Raonic, the youngest behind sister Jelena and brother Momir.

"Kids today don’t even know who Boris Becker is, but Milos was there reading about guys like Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez."

With prime-time indoor court fees as high as $24 an hour, Dusan arranged a special agreement with the Blackmore Tennis Club for lower rates at off-peak hours – times such as 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. So it was that father and son would head out into the cold, enter the indoor club and command a ball machine for hours on end. Dusan would also watch the boy’s lessons so he could absorb their wisdom and pass it on as Milos hit thousands of balls. Both father and son stress, though, that he was careful to mostly leave Milos alone and back away from becoming a micro-managing tennis parent. “Dusan is a tremendous guy,” said Curtis. “He told me that I was 100 percent in charge of the tennis and that he was in charge of his academics.”

The boy soaked up everything he could about tennis, from time on the ball machine to lessons, drills, matches and extensive study of the game’s history. Said Curtis, “Kids today don’t even know who Boris Becker is, but Milos was there reading about guys like Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez.”

Raonic particularly enjoyed watching videotapes of his hero, Pete Sampras. “I just liked the way Sampras was able to stay under control all the time,” said Raonic. “That’s something I’m always working on – to control what I can and not worry about the things I can’t.” Indeed, Raonic’s temper in his youth was explosive. According to Curtis, “I wanted to get him to a point where he wasn’t feeling the emotion.”

RaonicMost of all, said Raonic, “I enjoyed the individuality of tennis. I liked not being dependent on other people. I know that when it comes to winning or losing, it’s down to me.” Yet even as he honed his own game, Raonic participated with enthusiasm in Curtis’ various clinics and workouts. According to Curtis, “He’d hit with anybody, practice with whoever was there to practice with. When he was younger he’d fill in with adults in doubles, hit with older members. He talked about other kids in the program and cared about them. He just loved tennis. When he was 12, I told him he could be the best player in the world one day. He smiled the way kids do, but a year or two later he wasn’t smiling. He was believing.”

But Dusan and Vesna had a slightly different picture of what life would be. In the early ‘90s, as war ranged through their native Balkans, these two engineers had moved from Montenegro to Canada. Milos were three years old. “For us, education mattered very much,” said Dusan. Young Milos agreed. “I was always a good student, always really liked math,” he said. But he also made an arrangement as early as elementary school to leave school early so he could play tennis – and at the same time get his work done. By his late teens, Raonic earned a scholarship offer from the University of Virginia. Said Dusan, “We were really hoping he would take it.” But Milos convinced his parents it was worth giving pro tennis a shot.

"I liked not being dependent on other people. I know that when it comes to winning or losing, it’s down to me."

As patient as Raonic was, as much as he attempted to remind himself that the tennis life was not a sprint but a marathon, in retrospect he admits that it has taken him a while to mature. “When I was younger, I banged racquets, but mostly what I would do was talk non-stop, putting myself down, just rubbish,” said Raonic.

Early in his pro career, Raonic was coached by former ATP pro, Frederic Niemeyer, who was in complete agreement with Curtis about Raonic building an attacking game. Late last year, though, as it became clear that Raonic’s travel schedule would increase, Niemeyer explained that it would be hard for him to travel extensively. With that, in November, Raonic headed to Barcelona to train with Blanco at his academy. The two hit it off nicely. According to Blanco, “He’s learning about the game, about the game at the pro level, where you don’t necessarily always have to hit big but you must be consistent, smart, know the court.” Said Raonic, “Galo has so much experience and he has helped me put aside self-destructive behavior.”

While Raonic has had his moments of on-court volatility, in conversation he speaks with ease and tranquility, a matter-of-fact quality that is indeed reminiscent of the young Sampras. His speaking style is similar to his most notable tennis asset: an unhurried but fluid service motion that, like Sampras’, slowly gathers force and then unleashes itself with exquisite ease, variety and pinpoint accuracy. Not only is Raonic capable of striking massive serves down the center of the court, his breaking deuce court slice and astounding ad court kick pose incredible possibilities at such attack-friendly places as Wimbledon and the US Open. Said Roddick, “The good news for him is he's going to be able to learn on the job because that serve is going to win him a lot of matches...It's one of the bigger serves I've seen.”

RaonicHaving made a splash in Australia, Raonic’s remarkable ride up the ranks continued in San Jose. On the first night of the tournament, he was at last able to meet Sampras, a face-to-face encounter evocative of the teenaged Bill Clinton meeting President John Kennedy. When 'Milos Met Pete' had been arranged by ex-pro Justin Gimelstob, on-site for ATP World Tour Uncovered, the weekly men's tennis television round-up. Though Sampras would confess to not having yet seen Raonic play, his interest was rapidly piqued when Gimelstob told Sampras that, “this guy has an arm almost as live as yours.” Sampras advised him it was vital to “work on everything...and that you must be able to win when you’re not playing well.” That a local instructor might have offered the same guidance was incidental to the reality that here at last Raonic had heard the words from his idol. Naturally, he paid attention like a monk at a shrine.

In San Jose and Memphis, Raonic earned a pair of wins over Fernando Verdasco, as well as victories over such veterans as Radek Stepanek, Mardy Fish, James Blake and Xavier Malisse. Throughout he showed exceptional poise – and, true to the spirit of Sampras, understated passion. “It’s going to come down to consistency, staying healthy, working and never being satisfied,” said Raonic about the keys to enduring success.

"He's going to be able to learn on the job because that serve is going to win him a lot of matches"

That Raonic comes from Canada is revealing. Though he is grateful to Canada’s tennis community and plans to do what he can to aid the game’s growth there, Raonic’s singular ascent and commitment show at one level that it’s very tricky to gauge if any kind of national system can truly yield great players. Said Raonic, “It’s great to be Canadian, but at the end of the day, it’s for myself, as an individual.”

So in large part, Raonic is a citizen of the New Tennis World Order: born in Montenegro, raised in Canada, offered an American education, refining himself in Spain and just commencing a journey that will likely see him circle the planet for the better part of a decade – an education far different than the one envisioned by Dusan and Vesna. Said Dusan, “We shall see how it works out.”

But if all his global underpinnings make Raonic thoroughly contemporary, there is one habit he has that is heavily old school. Raonic’s pre-match meal is not the pasta favoured by a great many players. Instead, Raonic prefers a thick steak. Now that he’s made more money, said Raonic, “the steaks have gotten better.” The stakes have also gotten higher.

Shark Bites

• Raonic has compiled a 14-3 match record and has jumped from No. 156 at the end of last season to  a career-high No. 37 in the South African Airways 2011 ATP Rankings. He is the highest-ranked Canadian in ATP World Tour Rankings history  (since 1973). At age 20, he is the youngest player in the current Top 50.
• His 11 tie-break wins is the most on the ATP World Tour.
• He has posted three Top 10 wins this season, two over No. 9 Fernando Verdasco and one over No. 10 Mikhail Youzhny. The three wins are second-most on the ATP World Tour, only behind World No. 3 Novak Djokovic (5).
• He became the first Canadian to capture an ATP World Tour singles title since Greg Rusedski in April 1995 (Seoul) by winning the SAP Open in San Jose (d. No. 9 Verdasco).
• He is among the Top 5 in five of the six RICOH ATP MatchFacts categories:
- Aces (303, 20.2 avg.)                    No. 1
- First Serve Pts. Won (81%)            No. 1
- Service Games Won (91%)            No. 2
- Break Pts. Saved (70%)                 No. 4
- Second Serve Pts. Won (57%)        No. 5

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