T.O.’s new tennis star takes his first title

BLISTERING SERVE AND POISE THAT BELIES HIS AGE HAVE MILOŠ RAONIĆ ON THE CUSP OF GREATNESS


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It started with his match against the world’s top tennis player. Miloš Raonić may have lost in two sets, but he impressed his opponent. And when Rafael Nadal calls you a player to watch, it’s guaranteed to turn heads in the tennis world.

Raonić followed up his performance against Nadal with a surprise run at the Australian Open. As a qualifier, he captured headlines when he upset the 22nd and 10th seeds. He went on to be defeated by David Ferrer, but to go asfarashedidwasabigcoupfor his career. Raonić is the first Canadian to make it to the fourth round of a Grand Slam event in more than a decade, and his streak there secured him a spot in the world’s top 100.

Continuing this momentum, he won his first Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) title at the SAP Open in San Jose last month, which earned him $92,000. In the span of a year, he has gone from relative unknown to best male singles player in Canada and 59th in the world.

Raonić’s meteoric rise to tennis stardom may appear to have happened almost overnight. But anyone who knows him well will tell you that this is hardly the case. The hard work began soon after he picked up his first racquet.

His first coach, Casey Curtis of Blackmore Tennis Club, met him when he was only eight years old. The youngster was hoping to play in Curtis’s group clinics, but he didn’t think Raonić was ready yet.

Raonić was determined, though, even as a boy. He started hitting the courts with his dad early in the morning and late in the evening (to get cheaper rates) to practise with the ball machine. Within a couple of months, his playing level was strong enough for him to join the clinics. By the time Raonić was about 12, the potential for him to play professionally was evident to Curtis. They spent a lot of time working on his serve, and it was already near perfect at this point.

Curtis liked to ask Raonić what Pete Sampras — his idol — would do with his shots, pushing him to be better than not only his current opponents, but his future ones, too. He says that at first Raonić would smile when he posed the question. After a while, as he began to believe, he took it more seriously. Curtis coached Raonić up until he was 17 years old. He was impressed as he watched Raonić take his first ATP tournament victory.

“To be able to be that calm in that kind of pressure shows a real champion quality,” he says. “There’s no reason this guy can’t get to number one in the world.”

Now towering at six-foot-five, the 20-year-old GTA native is known on the international tennis circuit for his powerful serve. In his title-winning match at the SAP Open, his fastest serve clocked in at 149 kilometres an hour. Eleven matches into the year, Raonić has already notched 174 aces, making him number two overall for most aces on the ATP tour.

Raonić is working well with his new coach, Spaniard Galo Blanco, and he attributes his recent success to his composure and fitness level.

“My game is coming together, andIfeellikeI’monmywayto reaching my goals and playing the level I want to play,” he says.

He says the next steps are to maintain the level of play he’s at right now and to do well on clay courts.

“I think it’s necessary to be one of the top players nowadays to be able to play on all the surfaces,” Raonić says.

This is one element of the game he thinks he needs to work on.

Fernando Verdasco, who lost to Raonić in San Jose and then again in Memphis, was reported as saying he hoped to face the young tennis player on clay courts soon, so he could demonstrate to him what it is to play a “real match,” to not only serve, but to have to rally and run.

Raonić sees a lot of areas for improvement in his game, which is a positive for him. He says he doesn’t mind putting in the hard work. But rest is also important for any athlete, and after the ATP event in Memphis last month, Raonić planned to take some time off before the Davis Cup.

“I do take that time to recover, not just physically, mentally also, so when I do get back to courts, I’m there 100 per cent and fighting 100 per cent,” he says.

With his recent successes, Raonić was asked whether he would continue to play for Canada or leave and play for his other nationality, as Greg Rusedski (a Canadian-born tennis player who went back to Britain) did. But he has dismissed the notion.

 “If you love it, you do it 100 per cent and that’s what I always did.”

“It’s clear what my decision is, what nationality stays beside my name when I play my tournaments and who I play Davis Cup for,” he says.

Raonić can’t think of any one moment when he realized tennis was it for him. He simply gave the sport his all from day one.

“If you really love it, you do it 100 per cent and that’s what I always did,” he says. “There was never a doubt if this was the right decision.”

Born in Montenegro, Raonić moved to Canada with his family at the age of three. Vesna Raonić says her son always excelled in sports, but she could tell tennis was different from the rest for him. Raonić was always pushing her and her husband, Dusan, to take him to the tennis courts. Raonić also did well academically, graduating from Thornhill Secondary School early at the age of 16.He would get up at 5:30 a.m. to go play tennis, go to school, leave early to go back to the courts, do his homework afterwards, and he would play tournaments on weekends. He was three weeks away from leaving for university when he decided to go pro.

As the youngest of three children, Raonić is extremely close to his family. Even as his career takes him around the globe, he’s always got family with him and he’s on Skype every day. For Vesna, to see her son start to get results after working so hard is amazing.

“Seeing him so happy makes all of us so happy and excited,” she says.

This month, Raonić is slated to play the Davis Cup in Mexico, followed by tournaments in Indian Wells, California and Miami.

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