By Mike McIntyre
Talking to John McEnroe a year ago at a tennis exhibition in Hamilton, Ontario, the seven time Grand Slam champion told me that, “if tennis was played on ice, Canada would have a top-ten player.” While his comments were made in jest, there was an unfortunate truth they held as well. Known more for producing hockey stars than top-level tennis players, Canada had no players in the top one hundred of the ATP World Tour singles rankings.
While we can boast of Daniel Nestor, perhaps the most accomplished doubles player of all-time, there has been a lack of tangible singles results from our country since Greg Rusedski jumped-ship for Great Britain in the mid 1990s.
Fast forward to the first quarter of 2011 and if you take a look the rankings you’ll notice that Canadian Milos Raonic has seemingly out of nowhere approached the top thirty players in the world. After the Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells, California in March Raonic was ranked 34th in the world - the highest singles ranking ever for a Canadian male tennis player. At just twenty years of age Raonic has skyrocketed up the rankings with more attention and enthusiasm than any player since a guy named Rafael Nadal did back in 2004.
The first indication that Raonic was more than your average player was back in August during the Rogers Cup in Toronto. In a rare moment where a first-round doubles match took centre court, Raonic and his fellow Canadian partner, Vasek Pospisil, faced the unenviable task of facing Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – who at the time were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the singles rankings. Despite whatever nerves they must surely have been feeling, the young Canucks defeated their far more accomplished opponents by a score of 5-7, 6-3, 10-8.
Raonic finished the year unspectacularly but was taking solid steps in the right direction. He would play Nadal once more, this time in singles competition and was beaten by a respectable score of 6-4. 6-4. After the match Nadal said of Raonic, “You can't compare big servers, everyone has their own serve, but his is unbelievable. I think he will rise in the rankings.”
It was during the off-season that Raonic was able to take his game to the next level. While he resides in Thornhill, he went to Spain to train with coach and former ATP player Galo Blanco where he took advantage of hitting with seasoned professionals like David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro. The positive results from his hard work were evident at the Australian Open in January where Raonic progressed through three matches of the qualifying draw before advancing all the way to the fourth round – the first Canadian to do so at a Grand Slam since Daniel Nestor did it at Wimbledon in 1999. En route to the final sixteen, Raonic impressively dismissed some seriously experienced competitors including tenth ranked Mikhail Youzhny. Clearly his arsenal contained more than just a big serve.
Raonic refused to rest on his laurels from Melbourne and proceeded to make the fourth round of an event in Johannesburg and then most impressively won the title a week later in San Jose over Fernando Verdasco - a regular in the top-ten.
While his results so far this season are impressive, the real excitement with Raonic stem from the enormous potential that tennis fans and the media alike are sensing. Former players like John and Patrick McEnroe, Darren Cahill and even the great Pete Sampras have weighed in on the skill and maturity that Milos’ possesses and the consensus for his potential greatness is unanimous.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Milos shortly after his first ATP win and he took the time to answer some questions for ProTennisFan. His responses questions demonstrate not only the youthful innocence and exuberance one might expect of someone his age but also a quiet confidence in himself that signifies his belief in what lies ahead.
ProTennisFan: Let’s start with how you got your beginning in tennis. How old were you when you first took up the sport and who or what sparked your interest?
Raonic: I started playing tennis when I was 8 years old, my dad sparked my initial interest in the sport, and after that my first coach, Casey Curtis believed in me so much and pushed me always new keep getting better and reaching new levels. After I started playing tennis my love for the sport grew, and I could never get enough. I always wanted to play and be on the court.
PTF: What players did you look up to when you were younger and what players today do you admire the most?
Raonic: I looked up to Sampras and I idolized him, he really inspired me and I watched all his televised matches more than once. Today I try to improve and not look up to anyone because I want to beat them and be better then them. But I admire what Federer and Nadal have done for the sport.
PTF: It seems as though you took a giant leap forward with your results in the latter half of 2010. To what do you attribute the success that you achieved in the late stages of the year?
Raonic: I think I have improved a lot over the last year and I have picked up a lot of experience. I have matured a lot and been able to control my emotions better on court, allowing myself to see my match clearer and therefore adjust my game and play better. This has been a big step for me as well as improving every part of my game and my physical fitness level.
PTF: For tennis fans here in Canada and in Toronto in particular, we remember the terrific doubles match you and Vasek Pospisil had against Nadal and Djokovic. Despite your main focus as a singles player, how meaningful was that match in terms of your confidence?
Raonic: It was big for me, especially recognition wise. It made me more known to Canadian tennis fans and it gave me a taste of beating the top players. I didn't take too much from it because it was doubles and I know singles is very different but it definitely helped me reach my ranking today.
PTF: How has Tennis Canada helped you in your transition from the junior ranks to now competing on the ATP World Tour? Who has been a big help along the way?
Raonic: Yeah, they have been supportive financially and morally. They have provided me with facilities to train in Montreal and with coaching. They have also helped me look for coaches and Louis Borfiga and Michael Downey have helped me make big decisions.
PTF: Have any Canadian players in particular been a source of strength for you over the past few years? How close are you guys as a group?
Raonic: The team has been good to me, former player Frederic Niemeyer has been the biggest influence, especially coaching me for the year and helping me with his knowledge and experience. The team is growing and young and we are becoming closer and closer with each Davis Cup tie.
PTF: Is it difficult playing for a nation where tennis has not really had a true top-level singles player or does it merely motivate you to be the first to enjoy that breakthrough?
Raonic: I think Canada has a lot of talent and athletic ability, it’s just the kids and families see the success in hockey and they want to go and play hockey. I think if I was able to achieve something big and put tennis up in Canada that could change, so I feel I am sort of a tennis ambassador to Canada. I like the responsibility that comes with it and I hope to be able to make a big change.
PTF: John McEnroe once joked that Canada would have a top-ten player if tennis was played on ice. Why do you think our country has struggled so hard to get to that level and do you feel that we are getting closer to seeing other players like yourself start to make that push?
Raonic: Yes, we are getting closer and I feel we will keep getting better and better, we have the environment and the facilities, and we just need to keep working hard and believing. We need that confidence and swagger that Canadian hockey players have.
PTF: You’ve mentioned before how happy you are to represent Canada, but being born in Montenegro, how do you deal with the questions that I’m sure come up regarding your options of playing there as well?
Raonic: I always reply the same, I play for Canada and I will continue to play for Canada.
PTF: What would you be doing if you weren’t a tennis player at the moment?
Raonic: Studying for a finance degree.
PTF: What aspects of being a “normal” 20 year old do you miss out on?
Raonic: Not much, my life is pretty amazing and fun, but I would love to have the college experience. But playing tennis is much more fun for me.
PTF: You’ve enjoyed your first title on the ATP Tour; you’ve cracked the top-forty, become the highest ranked Canadian singles player ever and made it to the 4th round of a Grand Slam. Which accomplishment this season has meant the most to you and why?
Raonic: The ATP title, because it’s the type of goal you dream about since you were young and it was the only moment out of all of them that made me really emotional.
PTF: What perks or benefits have you enjoyed since becoming more well-known on tour? Are there any negative aspects to your newfound notoriety as well?
Raonic: I make time to do a few more fun things, like go to the zoo, safari and other local things that are fun, also it’s easier to book practice courts, and you don't have to worry as much about sharing. There isn't much negative at all.
PTF: Have you made any spontaneous purchases with any of your winnings from either the Aussie Open or San Jose yet or have you even had time to enjoy any of it just yet?
Raonic: Naw, I have just enjoyed more expensive steaks. I love a good steak!
PTF: Not sure if you heard Brad Gilbert label you the “Maple Leaf Missile”? Any thoughts on that nickname? Do you have another existing nickname we should use instead?
Raonic: I like the nickname, I have a few others. In Spain they call me "avatar" because of my long legs and height.
PTF: What kind of schedule do you plan on following this year on tour? How does your recent success change (if at all) the tournaments you plan to enter?
Raonic: I will do a full clay court swing all the way through to Roland Garros starting in Monte Carlo. And then off to the grass courts. I look forward to it. The only thing that's changed is I won't have to play qualifying.
PTF: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions Milos and good luck the rest of the year!