Milos Raonic is headed toward tennis stardom
The last time Milos Raonic hit the tennis courts in Vancouver, the then-unknown teenager from Thornhill, Ontario, was a straight-sets loser in the opening round of the 2010 Odlum Brown VanOpen at West Vancouver’s Hollyburn Country Club.
That was no big deal, and, at that point in time, neither was he. However, when Raonic returns to this city to lead Canada into its Davis Cup World Group stage against heavily favoured France at UBC February 10 to 12, tennis and sports fans in this city will be getting a look at a completely different player and one of the rising stars in the game.
With a serve that may be unmatched in men’s tennis right now, the 21-year-old bomber heads down under for the Australian Open starting on January 16. Then Raonic will arrive here, hoping to lead Canada to the upset victory in the three-day team event that will be played at the sold-out 5,000-seat Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.
Raonic rode his rocket serve—regularly clocked at more than 210 kilometres per hour—to the second Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) title of his young career, winning the Chennai Open in India on January 8, defeating top seed and world No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia in three hard-fought sets. Raonic had earlier dispatched world No. 10, Nicolas Almagro of Spain, in the semifinal, proving that he can more than hold his own with the big names in the game. In fact, in a relatively short time, Raonic has already notched victories over five players ranked in the top 10 in the world.
“My serve is a big factor in my game—in 99 percent of my matches,” Raonic told the ATP website following the win that boosted him to a career-high 25th in the world rankings. “My job is to take care of my serve.”
And in Chennai, just as he’ll hope to do here in Vancouver, he certainly had the serve working for him. Raonic had 35 aces in the final match and 76 overall in the tournament. He won all 48 of his service games in the four matches he played in India, becoming the first player to win an ATP title without dropping a service game since Roger Federer accomplished the feat four years ago.
Anytime you accomplish something that no one has done since Federer—arguably the greatest ever to play the game—you know you’re on the right path. And Raonic certainly seems to be headed toward stardom, if he isn’t already there. He was recently named ATP Newcomer of the Year for 2011 despite missing a good portion of the second half of the year after hip surgery following an on-court injury at Wimbledon last July.
But the win in India proves that he is healthy and in good form as he begins the new year with high hopes and momentum heading to the first Grand Slam event of 2012, followed closely by the chance to lead Canada in Davis Cup action on home soil. Last year, Raonic announced his arrival on the tennis scene by advancing to the fourth round at the Australian Open, cracking the top-100 rankings for the first time in his career.
Another strong showing in Melbourne would give Canadians more reason to believe they may see something special when Raonic takes to the court at UBC.
With Tennis Canada planning to use the slickest surface possible for the Davis Cup matches, Raonic’s serve will likely be the key to Canadian success against a French squad that will almost certainly include world No. 6, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; No. 12, Gilles Simon; and 15th-ranked Gaël Monfils. It will easily be the highest-quality tennis this city has seen in decades—and quite possibly ever.
As a team, France is fourth in the Davis Cup rankings to Canada’s 14th, and the French were runners-up to Serbia in 2010, so there is an element of David versus Goliath involved. But with Canada having won the right to host the best-of-five-matches event (two singles matches, a doubles match, and two more singles matches), every step possible was taken to even the playing field for Raonic and the rest of the Canadian team: Vancouver’s Vasek Pospisil, Toronto’s Daniel Nestor, and the other players soon to be selected by Team Canada captain Martin Laurendeau.
It was no accident that Vancouver was chosen as the host site. Not only was Tennis Canada overdue to bring a high-profile event like this out west (this is the first Davis Cup match in Vancouver since 1992 and in British Columbia since Victoria played host in 1995), but the West Coast also made perfect sense in order to make the French team travel as far from home and deal with as many time-zone changes as possible.
And in going with the same quick hard court used in San Jose, California, where Raonic won his first professional title last February, Tennis Canada is hoping those Raonic rockets are simply too much for the French team to handle. One man alone can’t win a team event like the Davis Cup, but Raonic will clearly have to do his part and shoulder much of the load if Canada is to have any chance to advance.
And for the first time in a long time—maybe ever—it’s not unreasonable to expect a Canadian team to do just that. In any event, it’s great to see such high-level tennis back in these parts, and it’s remarkable to think that there is a very good chance that the best player that weekend—in an event featuring top tennis talent—will have a maple leaf on his outfit.
That’s a big deal, and so is Milos Raonic.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter .