Milos Raonic's grandest slam

Can he ride his scorching serve to the next level?

Grandest slam

Photograph by Michel Setboun/Getty Images

There is nothing even remotely intimidating about Milos Raonic—until he has a tennis racquet in his hand. Galumphing across the lobby of his Paris hotel in his size-14 Nikes, he makes you think of Bambi on ice, or Michael Phelps out of water: a collection of limbs that appear to be moving in all directions at once with no common purpose. The handshake is limp, the smile is shy, and his voice cracks when he talks. Sure, he’s six foot five, but at just 198 lb., the 20-year-old still has the face and frame of a teenage boy. And, as it turns out, the serve of a natural-born killer.

At the Australian Open this past January, he clocked the fastest serve of the tournament with a 143 mph (230 km/h) slam in an upset victory over France’s Michael Llodra. In the final of the SAP Open in San Jose the next month—his first career ATP championship, and the first singles tournament win by a Canadian player in 16 years—Raonic touched 149 mph (240 km/h) playing against Fernando Verdasco, then ranked No. 9 in the world. In early March, at a Davis Cup match in Mexico, he hit 152 mph (245 km/h) tying for the fourth fastest serve in history. (Ivo Karlovic holds the current record of 156 mph—251 km/h—established during a Davis Cup match in his native Croatia that same week.) Heading into Wimbledon, Raonic had scorched opponents for 479 aces and counting this season, 83 ahead of Karlovic for the lead on the circuit. Which makes his claim that he isn’t even trying to hit it that hard all the more frightening. “When I get high numbers, I’m not thinking full-out bomb. It just comes off the racquet that way,” Raonic says as he sips mineral water in the lobby bar. “Some days, the ball is going close to 150, and I just feel like I’m swinging my arm.”

However it happens, that big serve is bringing big rewards. A year ago, the Montenegrin-born product of Thornhill, Ont. (his family emigrated when he was three), was ranked No. 295 in the world. At the beginning of 2011, when he went three rounds deep at a tournament in Chennai, India, for US$670 in prize money, he was ranked No. 156. After losing in the round of 16 in Australia—the furthest a Canadian player had been at a major in more than a decade—he cracked the top 100. Right now, with a record of 26-12 on the year, Raonic is sitting 25th. The rise has been so meteoric that he long ago surpassed his goals for the season, and hasn’t had time to figure out which new ones might now be attainable. “I haven’t been able to come to a conclusion,” he says. “Anything can happen. That’s the beauty of tennis.”

In Paris, a couple of days before the French Open, he’s still trying to wrap his head around being seeded at a Grand Slam, rather than having to fight through three rounds of qualifications. There’s a whirlwind of media and sponsor events (Lacoste, software firm SAP and Wilson are already on board, and more big deals are pending, says his agent). The hotel, just off the Champs-Élysée, is hip, luxurious and hideously expensive. Raonic confides that he hardly has to wait at all for a tournament-supplied car when he needs transport. And out at Roland Garros, he’s even getting prime practice times and partners. “It’s a different level of respect in the locker room. It’s a lot easier to get the top guys to practise with you,” he says. As the week goes on, Rafael Nadal—the King of Clay—seeks him out for a session. (In the warm-up to Wimbledon a few weeks later, the King of Grass, Roger Federer, will do the same.)

With all the change, the rituals are becoming more important than ever. The night before every match, Raonic eats a steak, cooked medium rare. The day of, he consumes a plate of pasta with just olive oil and salt, even if he’s playing first thing in the morning. The racquets must be strung three or four hours before he hits the court, and arranged in order of use—he switches every seven to nine games. New socks are a requirement. And so are his lucky underwear—Calvin Kleins with a red waistband, if you must know. “I always play better in them. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because red is my favourite colour,” he says. The thing is, they keep going missing in the tournament laundry rooms. “They steal so many clothes,” Raonic laments. “I mean, okay, the Lacoste stuff I get free. But the underwear thing really pisses me off. It’s $40 for a pair these days.” The fact that he’s earned $542,000 so far this season doesn’t appear to have sunk in.

They’ve set up the makeshift tennis court in front of the Paris Aquarium, one of the City of Light’s lesser-known landmarks, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. For reasons that are never explained, it is half regulation size. Maybe it’s so the cameras can get the four pros occupying it all in the same frame. Or perhaps they were expecting midgets.

Mats Wilander, the Swedish tennis great who won seven Grand Slam titles between 1982 and 1988, including three French Opens, is exchanging soft lobs with Raonic across a two-foot high net as the shutters click. A few perplexed joggers and school groups look on in the humid morning haze. Wilander is gamely trying to make conversation about the Vancouver Canucks’ Cup run, but he’s got the wrong Canadian. “Do you play hockey?” he asks. “I’ve never even been on ice,” says Raonic.

He played some street hockey growing up, a bit of baseball on the school playground, and had the tall kid’s affinity for basketball, but truth be told, there has only ever been one sport in Milos Raonic’s life. When he took up tennis at age nine, it became an instant obsession. He was the one dragging his father Dusan out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and down to the Blackmore Tennis Club in Richmond Hill, Ont., to thwack 300 or 400 balls before heading off to school. By the time he was 10, his parents had given in and worked out a deal with the local board allowing Milos to study through the lunch hour and end his day at 1:30 p.m. so he could return to the club for afternoon practice. Often, they would return again in the evening for another session, sometimes with his mother Vesna and older sister Jelena or brother Momir feeding balls into the machine. In his free time, Milos read books about tennis, and surfed the Net to absorb new stats. Or he would simply plop himself down in front of the TV to watch videotapes of his favourite player, Pete Sampras, over and over and over again.

In his teens, there were tournaments almost every weekend. High school was compressed into 2½ years—extra courses during the day, and online studies at night—leaving little time for leisure. At 17, Raonic moved to Montreal to train full-time at the National Tennis Centre at Jarry Park, billeting with a family who lived just around the corner. As a rapidly growing junior—six foot one at 15, four inches taller by 18—he was merely good, not dominant, reaching No. 35 in the International Tennis Federation rankings. But he always had the big serve. After approaches from several U.S. colleges, he accepted a full scholarship from the University of Virginia in 2008. Two weeks before classes began, he went to his parents and asked them if he could turn pro instead. Dusan and Vesna, both engineers by trade, weren’t thrilled but understood his dreams. “They don’t know much about tennis, but they’ve been willing to learn,” says Raonic. “And they’ve always had my best interests in mind.” Dusan’s only condition was that Milos keep studying—online courses in finance from Alberta’s Athabasca University—until he cracked the Top 100. All academic ambitions were parked in February.

Raonic’s lightning rise caught even seasoned tennis watchers by surprise. Wilander saw him in action for the first time at the Australian Open and was immediately impressed. “It was like, he must have been injured—why haven’t I seen him before?” Blessed with height, a great serve, and attitude, Raonic is “by far the most interesting new prospect,” says the Swedish champion. “Obviously, they’re all very confident, but with him, you have the feeling he expects himself to play at a certain level. And he’s not afraid of having to explore if he has another one. There’s no desperation. That’s what it takes,” says Wilander.

Galo Blanco, the former pro who started coaching Raonic in Spain last October, worries that it’s all happening too fast—too many new pressures on and off the court—but he is convinced that his protege has the tools to succeed. “To me, the good thing about Milos is that he’s No. 25 in the world, and I see that he has lots of things to improve upon.”

At the SAP Open in San Jose in February, Raonic finally got to meet his idol, Pete Sampras. The 14-time Grand Slam winner congratulated him on his play, and gave him some advice. “He told me, ‘The best players—the champions—find a way to win even when they are not playing their best,’ ” Raonic relates, eyes lighting up at the memory. A couple of days later, he won the tournament.

The mantra is acceptance. Accepting that those volleys won’t always land where you want them to. Accepting that there will be days when your shoulder aches, or your wrist hurts, or your legs just won’t do what you tell them to. Make peace with the reality that winning hurts, sometimes even more than losing. And that there are no excuses, only challenges. “Tennis is like baseball, or basketball, or hockey. You’re not going to feel your best on 95 per cent of the days,” says Raonic. “Mentally, you just have to learn to accept whatever kind of pain you’re in and deal with it.” (Although toughness has its limits: Raonic’s Wimbledon run ended in the second round when he was forced to withdraw, in visible agony after straining his hip ligaments.)

Professional tennis is a grind—20 to 25 tournaments a year that stretch from January to November. And unless your name is Nadal, Federer or Djokovic, you are destined to lose pretty much all of them. “At the end of the week, there is only one winner,” says Blanco. “You have to accept that next week it might be you.” In 11 years as a pro, amassing a 122-175 record, it was only him once—at San Marino in 1999. But the career high point came two years earlier when Blanco reached the quarter-finals of the French Open, losing to Australian Patrick Rafter in straight sets. The 34-year-old Spaniard looks back and is certain that he was too easily satisfied as a player. And he is unwilling to let Raonic make the same mistake. “He is a very hard worker, but he has to keep doing it. Because if he stops now, he’s not going to get all that he wants.”

Roland Garros provides a teaching moment. Anticipating a good run, with no top-seeded opponents until at least the third round, Raonic fell in his opening match—losing to 95th-ranked Michael Berrer of Germany. Friends and family who have travelled to Paris to watch him, including Dusan and his Montreal host billet, get to share in the disappointment. It is a result of poor serving, unforced errors and evident frustration.

As a junior, Raonic’s temper was his biggest foe, making him prone to racquet-tossing meltdowns even when he was winning. It’s something he’s trying hard to address, and maybe even thought he had conquered. “I’ll never get rid of it, but I’m learning to control it. I’ve learned how to keep that clarity and lucidity, to keep my thought process clear,” he says at the hotel a few days before. In a separate interview, Blanco isn’t so sure. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time he takes it out on me. I have to accept that. I’m the one pushing him to do things he doesn’t want to do,” he says. “But I understand. That was my biggest problem as a player. Milos is very young. He’s very angry. He wants to win.”

In just six months, Raonic has gone from tennis obscurity to the periphery of fame. He is making his debut at every Grand Slam, except the U.S. Open, which he qualified for last year, and practically every tournament except the Rogers Cup, where he was a wild-card invite in 2009 and 2010. Outside the Paris hotel, we walk a few blocks to the Arc de Triomphe for a photo shoot. He’s holding a racquet, but few of the tourists seem to take notice. One couple does eventually stop and take their own picture. Mike McQuaid and his wife are from Niagara Falls. They recognize him as a Canadian tennis player who’s been in the news. Mike thinks it might be local boy Frank Dancevic, currently ranked No. 164. Even when they’re given the name Milos Raonic, they’re not so sure. Centre court is still a few more killer serves away.

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