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Steve Flink: Raonic Ready for Greatness

2/22/2011 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

All of us who write about sports for a living can easily fall into bad habits. We have a tendency to use too many clichés. We can describe some things hyperbolically. Everyone in our trade is prone to overdramatizing. That is simply the nature of the business. And yet, it is our responsibility to be interpretive as tennis journalists, to examine the recent past and use it as a guide to lead us into the distant future. As a columnist, it is my job to call it precisely the way I see it, to be assertive without making reckless prognostications, to make sensible assessments based on the evidence of what I have observed. In this craft, making judgments is an essential tool of the trade.

So I am ready to weigh in unequivocally on the fast emerging and immensely promising Milos Raonic, a 20-year-old Canadian who has improved by leaps and bounds across the still young 2011 season.  I believe Raonic is destined for greatness. I caught some chunks of his round of 16 contest against David Ferrer at the Australian Open over the airwaves, and was highly impressed as Raonic took the opening set before dropping the next three and losing the match. Raonic had qualified for that tournament, and gained a following in a hurry after that extraordinary showing. He briefly stumbled in his next tournament at Johannesburg, falling in the round of 16 against Germany’s Simon Greul, a player ranked No. 130 in the world at the time.

Yet a loss of that kind for Raonic was not all that shocking when you consider his recent past. In 2008, he was a semifinalist at the French Open junior doubles event. That year he won an ITF singles title. The next year he qualified for the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Montreal and lost a close match to Fernando Gonzalez. In that 2009 season, he picked up two more ITF singles titles. Last year, Raonic made his Davis Cup debut for Canada, qualified for the U.S. Open but lost in the first round, and qualified for Kuala Lumpur and made it to the quarterfinals. He won another ITF singles title.

None of us—including surely Raonic himself—were prepared for what has unfolded so magnificently over the last two weeks at San Jose and Memphis. This 6’5” upstart with the strong disposition and the explosive game captured the SAP Open in San Jose, rallying improbably from 2-6 down in the first set tie-break to oust Fernando Verdasco 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5) in the final. On he went to Memphis, and Raonic made it all the way to the final of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships with a string of hard fought victories. Forced to confront world No. 9 Verdasco in the first round of Memphis only three days after their title round clash in California, Raonic displayed even more grace and grit under pressure, holding back the Spaniard 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (5) with another remarkable clutch performance. That set the tone for the week. Despite squandering four match points in the second set against the wily Radek Stepanek, Raonic moved past that disappointment and recorded a 6-4, 6-7 (10), 7-6 (1) triumph. He then accounted for Robert Kendrick 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, and stopped world No. 17 Mardy Fish 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

Raonic was riding the wave of an eight match winning streak as he took on Andy Roddick in the Memphis final. Here was a classic duel between a crafty veteran and former world No. 1 and a young rising star unafraid of his accomplished opponent or the circumstances. Experience was clearly on Roddick’s side of the net as the 28-year-old American looked to secure a 30th career tournament win in his 50th final round appearance, and sought to capture a singles title for the eleventh year in a row. For Raonic, this was only his ninth career tournament appearance on the ATP Tour, and it came on the heels of his first ever tournament win the week before. Here was a showdown featuring a charter member of the “Old Guard” against a swiftly ascendant member of the “New World Order.”

Neither man let us down—not in the least. On the Plexipave hard court surface indoors at one of the sport’s most intimate sites, it was apparent from the outset that this would be largely a server’s confrontation. Roddick has owned one of the game’s greatest serves across the last decade; for much of that span, he has arguably had the best serve in tennis. But in this match Roddick had the unenviable task of facing a player who could soon be regarded as the game’s next outstanding server. Three inches taller than his American opponent, Raonic has the added benefit of his height to make his smooth delivery even harder to read. And all through that first set, Raonic pounded his serve inexorably into the corners.

The big serves were coming in clusters. The Canadian hit 17 of his 32 aces in a staggering opening set display, and his placement was every bit as impressive as his power. Raonic is masterful at slicing the first serve wide in the deuce court, as well as sending the thunderbolt down the T. In the Ad court, he can send kick or flatter serves out wide, and can go down the T with ease. There isn’t any corner that he can’t hit.

In six service games en route to a first set tie-break, Raonic allowed Roddick only three points, winning 24 of 27 points on his delivery. Roddick could not pick the direction of Raonic’s serve at all. Raonic was firing away so purposefully and precisely that Roddick never had a chance. At 2-3 in that set, Raonic released three aces. He hit four more at 3-4 in a brilliant display, closing out that love game with a second serve ace.  At 4-5, the Canadian had three aces, and at 5-6 he came through with four more aces. Roddick was fortunate just to be in a tie-break. He served two double faults as he fell behind 15-40 in the opening game of the match, but held on. At 3-3 he trailed 0-30, but made a big statement of his own by holding on with three aces over the next four points.

Both men had some anxious moments in the first set tie-break. Roddick was down set point at 5-6 when Raonic made a deep service return down the middle. Roddick’s reply was relatively short, but Raonic erred on his trademark inside-out forehand. Roddick then missed badly on a forehand with a good opening down the line. Raonic was now up set point for the second time, and this one was on his own serve. He tightened up considerably, driving an inside-out forehand well wide for a glaring unforced error.  Raonic saved a set point at 6-7, but at 7-7 he made a serious miscalculation. He was up at the net and well positioned as Roddick drove a backhand pass down the line. Raonic conceivably would have been able to put away a high forehand volley, but he let the ball go, and the American’s shot fell on the baseline. Roddick pounced, acing Raonic down the T to take the tie-break 9-7 and move out in front.

Yet Raonic acquitted himself honorably in the early stages of the second set, when matters could easily have gotten out of hand. He bailed himself out from 15-40 down in the opening game, broke at love to move ahead 2-0, but lost his serve immediately in the third game. Both men swept through their service games majestically thereafter to set up another tie-break, and it was in this sequence that they played their finest tennis of the match. Roddick was finding a way by now to force his big hitting adversary into longer rallies. The American was using the sliced backhand skillfully, slowing the pace down, and waiting for the opening he needed to crack his forehand.

Roddick led 5-3 in the tie-break, and was serving at 5-4 with a chance to close out the match.  But Raonic walloped a flat forehand down the line that was too hot for Roddick to handle; that made it 5-5. Roddick still managed to take the next point on serve to earn his first match point, but with typical gumption Raonic got back to 6-6 with a scintillating inside-out forehand winner. The Canadian advanced to 7-6 with a set point of his own, provoking a backhand passing shot error from the American. Roddick aced Raonic out wide in the Ad Court to reach 7-7, then aced his opponent with a slice serve wide in the deuce court. The veteran was at match point for the second time, but Raonic was serving at 7-8, and his first delivery lured Roddick into an errant forehand return.

Raonic took the next point to give himself a second set point and a 9-8 lead. Roddick answered emphatically with a dazzling flat backhand down the line winner, and the American took the next point to move in front 10-9. Now Roddick was at match point for the third time, but Raonic went to the net confidently, read Roddick’s backhand down the line pass, and angled away a forehand volley into an open space. An ace took Raonic to 11-10, giving him a third set point, but Roddick wiped that away with a service winner. Yet Roddick could not cross the finish line. He went for a two-hander crosscourt with extra pace, but missed it wide. Raonic soon wrapped up the tie-break 13-11 by opening up the court with a crosscourt forehand. He came in on his next shot and Roddick was rushed into a forehand passing shot mistake. It was one set all.

Nonetheless, Roddick regrouped briskly in the third and final set, breaking a seemingly fatigued Raonic to go up 3-1, and serving two aces in a love game that made it 4-1. In his first three service games of the third set, a revitalized Roddick swept 12 of 13 points. He seemed in utter command, while Raonic was beleaguered. The Canadian appeared worn down physically and exhausted mentally. At 1-4, Raonic—who was losing considerable velocity and accuracy on his serve—fell behind 15-40. Roddick—who wisely stationed himself almost against the fence on the return of serve—was on the verge of breaking the match wide open. Raonic, however, wanted no part of that scenario. He swung his slice serve wide to Roddick’s forehand in the deuce court to elicit an error, and then nailed a forehand inside-out approach that overwhelmed Roddick to save those two critical break points.

Raonic gamely held on for 2-4, and suddenly Roddick was unsettled. He quickly went down 0-40 in the seventh game. The determined American fought off four break points from there, but then double faulted for only the fourth time in the match. Raonic cleverly threw in a backhand slice down the line that Roddick mishandled off the forehand. The two competitors were back on serve. Raonic held at love for 4-4. After Roddick held at love for 5-4, Raonic drifted into dangerous territory once more as he served in the tenth game of the final set. For the fourth time, he found himself down match point. He approached commandingly off the forehand, and Roddick netted a backhand pass. On the following point, Raonic cracked his 32nd and last ace of the contest, going down the T at 150MPH with his biggest serve of the week.

The Canadian held for 5-5, but Roddick was back in the groove on serve, releasing two aces, holding swiftly at 15 for 6-5. A final set tie-break seemed to be a distinct possibility as Raonic served at 30-15 in the twelfth game. But he made consecutive forehand unforced errors, and now Roddick was at match point for the fifth time. Raonic took the initiative, approaching on Roddick’s backhand. The American sent a nicely struck passing shot down the line, but Raonic was there for the low forehand volley. He kept the ball very low and had Roddick on the dead run. Roddick dove as he went for a forehand passing shot down the line, and then tumbled over as he followed through. It was a borderline miracle, the shot of Roddick’s career in many ways, a startling down the line winner that a frozen Raonic could only stand and admire. It had taken that kind of shot to bring Raonic down. Roddick had won 7-6 (7), 6-7 (11), 7-5, but only by the skin of his teeth.

Raonic has surged ever so close to the forefront of the game, and has established himself as the highest ranked Canadian man since ATP computer rankings were first released in 1973. He was ranked No. 156 at the start of 2011 but now stands proudly at No. 37 in the world. By summer, it is likely he will reside among the top 20, and he will make a strong push for the top ten by the end of the year. In his spectacular rise over the past couple of weeks, he twice upended one world top ten player in Verdasco, and then gave world No. 8 Roddick a stirring run for his money in Memphis. The next searching tests will be in the coming months when he plays the best the game has to offer in Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Soderling and Murray.  How he fares against that distinguished cast of top five players remains to be seen.

All I know is that he reminds me with the way he carries himself in different ways of the young Boris Becker and the 19-year-old Pete Sampras of 1990. As was the case with both of those superstars, Raonic has built his game around a prodigious serve, and that weapon alone will carry him forward on a major scale over the next few years. When an unsporting Verdasco took a disrespectful swipe at Raonic after suffering his second loss to the Canadian in Memphis—strongly suggesting that Raonic is not a real tennis player because all he can do is serve—the Spaniard was way off base. Raonic has a first rate forehand that he flattens out regularly. He covers it more when he needs to keep himself in rallies, but his inside out and down the line forehands are devastatingly potent. He goes through bad patches off that side, but the stroke will only get better in the years ahead. His two-handed backhand is solid but will inevitably improve, and he mixes in the slice well off that side.

Raonic has a real affinity for the volley, and has very good feel up at the net. I thought he attacked more often when I watched him play Ferrer in Australia than he did at either San Jose or Memphis, but he will not shy away in that department and his anticipation is excellent when he is in the forecourt. Raonic is only just beginning to explore his absolute potential. In time, I believe he will turn his second serve into a much bigger weapon. That was probably the essential difference between Raonic and Roddick in their agonizingly close final at Memphis; Roddick’s second serve was decidedly better. Roddick won 67% of his second serve points while Raonic came out on top only 53% in that department. Raonic kicks his second serve in with terrific depth but there are times he could go for it more and try to get more bite on it the way Roddick does. Once in a while, Raonic goes all out for the old fashioned American Twist second serve, and it is vicious. He needs to make calculated gambles more often on that second serve to keep his opponents off guard.

The bottom line is that Milos Raonic is a player I can’t imagine not winning his share of majors in the future. The first time I saw Boris Becker in the juniors, I was convinced he was going to be a world champion. When I started watching Pete Sampras closely early on during his 1990 U.S. Open championship run, I was certain he was headed toward places reserved only for elite performers. I was sold on Rafael Nadal the first time I saw him compete at the 2003 U.S. Open in a first round victory on an outside court.  I thought there was no way this left-hander would not succeed on the highest level.

I now see Raonic traveling along an inevitable path toward big achievements. This will be a substantial year for him and he could well go deep into the draws at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. But his best tennis will probably not commence until 2013 and beyond. Between 22 and 27 he will be a major force in his profession. This is a big man with good mobility, a versatile thinker and maturing point planner, and above all else an overwhelmingly potent competitor who was born to perform magically in the arenas that matter most.

Milos Raonic is swiftly coming of age, still filling out physically, gaining a deeper understanding every day of what it takes to win at the top. The day is fast arriving when Raonic will find himself nowhere else but in the upper echelons of a game he plays with such force and panache.  The way I see it, that is not hyperbole.

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