Cvitkovic: Raonic cannot tiptoe through Paris

Michael T. Cvitokovic writes that Milos Raonic has had a meteoric rise up the rankings this season, but the Thornhill, Ont., native is showing the maturity of a veteran pro heading into the French Open.

While it is an understatement to suggest that a lot has changed for Canadian Milos Raonic since the eve of the last Grand Slam, the 20-year-old phenom finds himself at the French Open cemented as a fixture on the ATP Tour.

In 2008, Raonic lost in the opening round of the Junior French Open to American Ryan Harrison. Just two years later, the big-serving Thornhill, Ont., native enters Roland Garros as the 26th seed. Despite the meteoric rise, which has included his first Tour title and being the highest-ranking Canadian male of all time, Raonic seems to have the maturity of a 10-year veteran and is taking everything in stride.

"It's more about trying to enjoy it [the French Open]," Raonic said on a conference call. "Playing for the first time as a professional, it's exciting being the first time and being seeded.

"I’m trying to take in the excitement and build off it, trying to play my best as everything comes from that. It's going to be an amazing experience."

More than Milos

There is a certain flare to Roland Garros that is hard to explain unless you've been there. Wimbledon has its tradition, the U.S. Open is like a big party, the Australian Open feels like you're at the circus, but the French Open — it's where sport, culture and cool meet. Now it's also cool to be a Canadian tennis fan.

It's great to see four Canadians in the singles main draw this year, notably Vancouver's Rebecca Marino, Canada’s top-ranked female and a 6-3, 6-3 winner over Kateryna Bondarenko in Sunday's opener.

Marino is joined in the women's draw by Montreal's Aleksandra Wozniak, who is on a comeback after various setbacks. Wozniak was the last Canadian to make noise in Paris, reaching the fourth round en route to a career-best No. 21 ranking back in 2009. Frank Dancevic of Niagara Falls, Ont., who is on yet another comeback of his own, won three qualifying rounds to reach the main draw in men's singles.

Then, of course, there's Toronto Daniel Nestor. Mr. Order of Canada. Mr. Top 5 doubles player of all time. Nestor is chasing his seventh Grand Slam title and looking to defend the French Open crown he won last June with Nenad Zimonjic, this time with new partner Max Mirnyi.

Sure, Raonic's serve, power and tennis tactics have made him a star, but his maturity and approach to all facets of being a professional athlete have separated him from the rest of the Canadians. Instead of being surprised by his newfound popularity, he is embracing it.

"I'm still getting used to it, for sure," he said. "But it's all good stuff.

"It's fun. It's good exposure for myself and the sport.

"Only positive things come out of it. I appreciate these moments and don't take them for granted."

When I worked for Tennis Canada and orchestrated these type of player conference calls, we would be lucky to get a stringer and maybe two Montreal reporters on the line. Now, Raonic gets dozens of reporters, TV and radio personalities and global media attention. A columnist from a well-known Dubai outlet was trying to get Raonic to commit to that tournament, despite the fact that it is not scheduled until February of next year. Even CNN sat down with him this week (weeks after a full-length interview with CBC's Peter Mansbridge, of course).

Success at Tour events will get you headlines for a day or two — and that's nothing to take from Raonic's 20-9 main draw record since his improbable run in Melbourne. However, success at the Grand Slams is what makes you remembered. Advancing to the fourth round at the Australian Open really brought Raonic attention and to everyone's attention. But with the flowers blooming in Paris, he is no longer a secret to opponents. Everyone takes him seriously. Players ranked above him are aware of his great strengths and those ranked below him are inspired by his wins and feel they can duplicate such feats.

Unlike many of his North American colleagues, Raonic has proven he can play on clay. He advanced to the third round of the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open and reached the quarters in the Estoril Open. He seems to have figured out what many around these parts of the world haven't, that clay court tennis is about patience.

"A lot of it is mental," Raonic suggested. "Being patient with it.

"There's an extra ball to come back and more shots to win the point. You have to construct [points] more.

"You have a lot of opportunities to get back into a point. It gives myself a chance to dig my way back into the point."

'Accept it and deal with it'

Long, slow rallies and five-set matches make for a physical and psychological grind for the men at the French Open and Raonic could be tested early in Paris as he is slated to face world's No. 4 Andy Murray of Great Britain in the third round. But with recent back troubles now behind him, Raonic feels he is ready to show that his success in Melbourne was just the beginning.

"Mentally, I think the biggest thing is dealing with the situations as they come and accepting what happens," Raonic concluded. "I can't control what happens day to day — accept it and deal with it."

Raonic knows he must pull off the biggest upset of his career if he wants to advance to the second week in Paris, but there's nothing to suggest he can't. In addition to having one of the best serves in the world, Raonic, surprisingly, likes to come to the net. He is not afraid to take chances and will alter the pace of the ball. Although the red clay of Paris might slow his serve down a bit, Raonic is proving he is not one-dimensional.