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Milos Raonic: The Quest For Perfection

Wimbledon, England

Raonic, London 2014© Getty ImagesMilos Raonic: "I believe that I can put myself in the position of breaking into the Top 5."

By sticking to his strengths, Milos Raonic is focused on breaking into the Top 5 of the Emirates ATP Rankings.

Bill Tilden, who won 10 Grand Slam championship singles titles in the 1920s, used to preach his dual commandments of never change a winning game, but always change a losing game. The theory is still true 90 years later.

While today’s stars of the ATP World Tour might not favour directing their play to Rafael Nadal’s heavily topspin forehand or engage Novak Djokovic in lengthy baseline rallies, Milos Raonic has become a major contender over the past 12 months by sticking to his strengths: an atomic serve and devastating forehand. As Rod Laver wrote in his excellent 1971 autobiography, The Education of a Tennis Player, “You are you. Don’t try to play beyond yourself. Keep the ball in play and let your opponent make the mistakes.”

Ivan Ljubicic, who came through a trial period as Raonic’s full-time coach, and the Croatian’s own long-time tutor, Riccardo Piatti, who officially joined Team Raonic in March 2014, have been working in unison to make their Canadian protégé a better mover, a stronger athlete and an all-court player, who is capable of challenging the game’s elite at every tournament he enters. “It is important that Milos doesn’t move away from his natural game, as the variation of surface speed is not that great,” Ljubicic told ATPWorldTour.com at a Monte-Carlo café. “The biggest challenge is coping with the pressure.”

"In two or three years, Milos is going to play better and better."

Piatti believes, “In two or three years, Milos is going to play better and better. Milos is very smart. He understands and he wants to improve. He is very determined and I like that a lot in a player. He pushes himself to the maximum, in practice and at a tournament. He needs to have experience in order to control himself. It all comes down to experience.”

Details matter when you’re a professional athlete. Raonic knows that he has one shot at top-level tennis. He parted company with his coach of three years, Galo Blanco, during last year’s European clay swing, because, as Raonic explained to ATPWorldTour.com at the recent Gerry Weber Open, “I thought we were stalling and stagnating. I didn’t feel as if I was making the progress that I would have liked. I was also losing a bit of efficiency in practice.” An immediate period of introspection followed the decision of 11 May 2013, and the culmulative effect of five early exits in six tournaments hit Raonic hard by the time of his Wimbledon loss. At that stage, he was No. 15 in the Emirates ATP Rankings and Ljubicic was in his fifth week as his trial coach.

When he sat in the locker room at the All England Club last year, he was deflated. Igor Sijsling rightly celebrated his second round scalp, but Raonic was “massively disappointed.” Speaking at the Halle players’ hotel a few weeks ago, he admitted, “I had come into Wimbledon with high hopes, there was solidarity behind such a belief, but ultimately I was not playing my best tennis at the time and I was very disappointed.”

"As a player, it is all about you, how you feel, how you organise your team and time."

Resistance to change often occurs when adjustments are made in a player’s game. But a shift in direction is exactly what Raonic wanted. His confidence was shot, so he could not thrive. Yet Raonic had enough nous to realise that he is a ‘work in progress’. He appreciated that any technical fix, any shift in mental approach or revision of point strategy was going to take time. Ljubicic, who rose to a career-high World No. 3, explained, “As a player, it is all about you, how you feel, how you organise your team and time. So understanding how to improve as a team and, individually, as a player, takes time and results.”

Raonic, Sirola, Monte-CarloThe jigsaw puzzle came together for Raonic out of the belief he had in his embryonic team, which was to include Dalibor Sirola, a fitness trainer, and physio Claudio Zimaglia.

“I was frustrated and angry, so I took time off at that point and I asked myself, ‘What do I need to do to play much better?’ I took seven or eight days off after Wimbledon, then I went into a training camp in Toronto — similar to what I do in December, but in a shorter period of time — and shut everything down in order to focus on what I needed to do to get my tennis level back. It wasn’t there right away. I left [the Citi Open in] Washington even more disappointed, as I thought taking time out and training would have helped. But going into Montreal not feeling the best, for sure, I managed to reach the final.”

"Riccardo understands how Ivan thinks and Ivan understands how Riccardo talks."

Although he lost to Rafael Nadal in his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 final at the Rogers Cup in Montreal last year, Raonic had targeted a number of objectives. “I knew Ivan could offer a lot of experience, but I also knew that Ivan was a very smart player on the court and really maximised his potential,” said Raonic. “That’s where a lot of trust came from early on in our partnership and it was good to have that belief without any doubts.”

Now with two coaches, it is important that there is one voice. Raonic explains, “Riccardo understands how Ivan thinks and Ivan understands how Riccardo talks. So even though there is two of them, I am constantly getting the same message.” Ljubicic, now aged 35, adds, “Milos gets the best out of a top tennis coach, with 30 years of experience, and a top player who stopped recently. The objective is to avoid confusion.” Piatti now speaks to Ljubicic “more than ever before.” The agreement — and working towards an objective — runs throughout the team, including Raonic’s physio, Zimaglia, and Sirola, his fitness trainer. “Dalibor and Claudio work a lot on Milos’ fitness and the way he is moving,” said Piatti. “Ivan helps Milos be in shape to work with Diablor. It is a team. Everybody knows what each other is doing with Milos.”

Piatti had coached Ljubicic throughout his 17-year pro career. Comparing the two, the Italian told ATPWorldTour.com in Halle, “They come from similar education backgrounds and in the mind they are very tough. They are very strict with themselves. They are similar because they are tough as persons and players, but different because Milos is 23 and he needs to build on his experience. Ivan has had a lot of experience. If I think of Ivan as a 23 year old, I can say they are very similar. But Milos is becoming stronger than Ivan, as a player.”

Raonic, Sirola, Monte-CarloWeight continues to fall off Raonic’s 6’5” frame. “Every day we never spend less than 90 minutes or two hours in the gym,” he confesses. Having dropped from 105 to 99 kilograms, eating a steak after every match is a distant memory. A gluten-free diet helps, of course. Sirola has focused on improving Raonic’s mobility, stability and muscle control. “We initially conducted movement tests over a three-month period and the results showed that stability was the problem,” said the Croatian trainer, who has 20 years of experience. “Milos was mobile at the joints, but he was not stable. He is strong in his upper body and legs, but they did not connect well into movement. So we built his core stability.” His power comes from his legs, which remain heavy, but his physical endurance has dramatically improved. “Milos is very professional,” adds Sirola. “He is big into work. Tennis is a sport of short points, so I believe going on long runs is not beneficial for modern-day tennis. It’s about strength, speed and power, so I prefer to work on court and build Milos’ endurance.”

"Milos' improved movement has developed his defensive game."

Raonic said, “We pinpointed what the goal should be. It was to better control the centre of the court and being more aggressive and dictating more. Even when things were going bad, I always had that in mind and that’s why I am playing better. I think I have improved physically, so I am able to move better, stay close to the baseline and take more time away from my opponent.”

His improved movement was highlighted in his three-set win over Andy Murray in the BNP Paribas Open fourth round — which was his second event of 2014 — and his clashes against Nadal, at the Sony Open Tennis, and Djokovic, at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia and Roland Garros, where he contested his first Grand Slam championship quarter-final. Djokovic admitted after the Rome clash, “I can’t recall the last time I was feeling so helpless returning. Even his second serve.” Raonic is taking great strides. “What I have improved the most this year is stability, functional stability. So even if I am stretched and moving, I am much stronger in that sense.” Ljubicic agrees, “Milos' improved movement has developed his defensive game.”

Raonic, Djokovic, Paris, June 2014“My defence is better,” said Raonic. “But I feel that I have gotten better at the neutral to aggressive point, where I don’t allow myself to get in to too many defensive positions. I am able to control the centre of the court better and I feel like I know what I need to provide physically, but also mentally on a consistent basis.” Strong performances against members of the Top 10 – a barrier he first broke through on 12 August 2013 – have also meant that Raonic’s expectations have also increased. “Losing to Novak in Paris, I was frustrated and I actually needed a few days away from everything to clear my mind, in order to be relaxed and refreshed,” he admits.

"I can put myself in the position of breaking into the Top 5."

“But I think I know how to deal better with specific situations mentally — facing break points, important games in the third set, what I need to do tactically — and also I feel that I have generally gotten better. My backhand is better, my forehand and my returns. I am more comfortable at the net. My serve got better as well. All those things may sound general, but I think I have constantly gotten better since I started working with Ivan.”

As the 23 year old prepares for the second week of The Championships for the first time — from his house in Marryat Road, 200 metres from the All England Club gates — Raonic is a threat to any player left in the draw. Although he has picked up one ATP World Tour title from three finals since putting his trust in Ljubicic and Piatti’s coaching philosophy, his drive and dedication to fulfill his objectives has meant that he has not dropped outside of the Top 12 players for almost 11 months. “Milos’ goal is to work hard, improve and prepare to win every tournament,” says Piatti. “That is the expectation. If he finds his game, he has a great chance of winning match after match.

“The Top 5 is possible for him. He just needs to play, practise and build his experience.” Says No. 9-ranked Raonic, “I believe I can do it. Let’s say, I don’t think it is far-fetched for me. I believe that I can put myself in the position of breaking into the Top 5.”

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