Announcing the arrival of Raonic
I witnessed a glimpse of things to come in the summer of 2009, when then-18-year-old Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., lost a closely contested three-set match over perennial Top 10 Fernando Gonzalez in the opening round of Rogers Cup at Montreal. Raonic became the first Canuck in 23 years to earn a berth to the main draw on home soil. He responded by firing 20 aces against the Olympic silver medallist from Chile.
At the time, the question was whether or not Raonic could play at that level consistently. I'm quite certain we now have our answer.
On Sunday, Raonic became the first Canadian in 16 years to capture an ATP Tour title, defeating defending champion and world No. 9 Fernando Verdasco 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5) at the SAP Open in San Jose, Calif.
"It's something that came quicker than expected, but something amazing," said Raonic, the youngest winner on tour since a 19-year-old Marin Cilic won the New Haven event in 2008.
Raonic didn't drop a set en route to the title, losing serve just once in four matches and finishing the week with a tournament-high 58 aces in four matches, including 13 in the final. The 20-year-old Montenegro-born Canadian now sits 59th in the world rankings — a meteoric rise of 93 spots in less than a month.
To put Raonic's ranking into North American perspective, a Top 60 forward in the NHL would likely play on the first line of his team. This big-serving tennis phenom has hit the big leagues.
On this side of the pond, players often have to wait until they win a Grand Slam to garner proper public praise. But the tennis world has taken notice since he knocked off 10th-ranked Mikhail Youzhny and No. 22 seed Michael Llodra to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open. The soft-spoken Canadian has received high marks from Rafael Nadal ("unbelievable"), John McEnroe ("the real deal") and even Pete Sampras, his boyhood idol.
A key factor in Raonic's quick rise in tennis has been the addition of former French Open quarter-finalist Galo Blanco as his personal coach. A product of Tennis Canada's national training centre in Montreal, Raonic now spends most of his non-tournament time in Spain learning from Blanco.
We have seen tennis potential in this country before.
Frank Dancevic reached a career-high No. 65 back in 2007, then had a string of bad luck with back problems. Despite a valiant return, he hasn’t been the same.
Peter Polansky has had moments, defeating Austrian star Jergen Melzer in Toronto last summer and Juan Monaco at the 2010 US Open, but he hasn't been able to crack page one of the rankings list.
There has been doubles domination, thanks to Daniel Nestor, Grant Connell, Glenn Mitchibata and Sebastien Lareau. And we've been teased with decent play from the likes of Andrew Sznajder and Greg Rusedski.
But Raonic has a weapon no other Canadian has possessed — one of the best and hardest serves on the planet.
Raonic ranks second on the Tour in total aces (174) and is tied for second in first-service points won (88%) and service games won (91%). He was clocked at 233 km/h in Saturday's fastest-serve competition with known sniper Ivo Karlovic of Croatia. His cannon of a serve is being compared to the best in class — Andy Roddick, Karlovic and John Isner.
Many wonder how high Raonic can reach.
One survey during a recent Australian Open broadcast noted that 67 per cent of viewers who participated believe Raonic has the tools to be a Top 10 player. While there is a big difference between Top 10 and Top 60, Raonic has maturity, poise and work ethic already in the bag. Experience will be the ultimate addition to his repertoire.
Oh, and that serve can bail him out when he struggles.
The 2011 season is almost a freebie for Raonic. His great success, while it should be celebrated, will really be solidified next year if he can defend all of the points he's racking up. He seems to be improving with each match he plays so, for now, the future looks amazing.
I remember sitting in the photo pit at Rexall Centre watching a doubles match with Raonic and B.C. native Vasek Pospisil against the studs of tennis, Nadal and Novak Djokovic. It was the first time since Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe paired up in 1973 that the top-two ranked players in the world competed on the same side of the net.
Much to the delight of the home crowd, the Canadian tandem upset the superstars.
On match point, Pospisil screamed and jumped in jubilation. Raonic, however, just smiled, calmed his partner and walked to the net to shake hands with his opponents, knowing that, for him, there will be many more opportunities to face the world's best.
I've seen this young man grow up before my eyes the past few years and there is little doubt that there is something very special about Raonic. As Canadians, we often get excited too quickly because we want to grasp onto international popularity, and Raonic is certainly the flavour of the month in international tennis.
This time, though, Canada's excitement is justified.
With files from ATP World Tour