TENNIS: Milos Raonic rising fast at Australian Open
Milos Raonic plays against Mikhail Youzhny on Saturday, Jan. 22 in Melbourne, Australia. Ranked 152 coming into the Australian Open qualifiers, Raonic has exploded upon the tennis scene and lifted the hopes of Canadian tennis fans by upsetting high-ranked players Michael Llodra and Mikhail Youzhny, in the best Canadian men’s singles performance in a decade.
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Meteoric rise no surprise to Raonic
MELBOURNE—Milos Raonic enters the press room at the Australian Open with confidence and a swagger to face a group of reporters who suddenly want to know where the heck he came from.
His serve, reaching 230 km/hour, is stunning players, fans and journalists who have never heard of the sunburned, 6-foot-5 Canadian from Thornhill, who had to survive three qualifying matches just to get into the Australian Open.
Yet after pummeling 22nd-seed Michael Llodra and 10th-seed Mikhail Youzhny in the midday sun of show court 3, Raonic sounds like he’s the only one not surprised by his meteoric rise, the best performance by a Canadian singles players in a decade. Asked which top player he would like to beat, he smiled and answered “All of them.”
“I know I can play at this level,” he said. “I’m not really shocked that I am here. I worked hard and I deserve to be here,” he said in front of about 20 reporters who are still learning to pronounce his name. “I’ve sort of found my game. I’m imposing my game and it’s putting a lot of pressure on the other guys.”
His serve is the talk of Melbourne Park. He leads the tournament in aces, with 67 in three matches. On Saturday, Youzhny couldn’t return half of Raonic’s 111 serves, including 31 aces. On Thursday, Llodra could barely touch Raonic’s serves in the second set, as he went pointless in three straight return games. “He’s got a good serve, very fast,” Llodra told The Star. “On this kind of surface, the bounce is very high, and it’s tough to control. It was tough to return his serve.”
Raonic said he serves “like probably one of the top guys on the tour.” Mixing flat boomers with wide slices and topspin kickers, his serve dominated two tiebreakers with Llodra, and repeatedly Youzhny’s comeback attempts. Last fall in Japan, his serve also gave him early leads over Rafael Nadal, who called his serve “unbelievable.”
“It allows me to play more freely on the return games because I know most of the time I will be holding,” Raonic said. “It also puts more pressure on the other guy, knowing if I do get up a break, there’s a good chance I could serve out the set.”
Regarded as a temperamental youth, Raonic said his former mentors in Montreal and his new coach Galo Blanco have taught him to recover quickly after setbacks — like a disputed call against Llodra and shaky service games to start the second and third sets against Youzhny.
“(Temperament) is something that’s been talked about many times between myself and my coaches. We sat down numerous times and had a heart-to-heart talk about this. I’ve been keeping it together.”
His resolve showed during a key point after he lost his serve in the second set on Saturday. Instead of brooding, Raonic lunged to dig out a backhand and then broke serve on a nifty half-drop shot that fooled the wily Russian.
“I’m not getting angry. It’s not like I’m hiding anything,” Raonic said. “I’m able to see clear and play the big points better instead of being sporadic and getting caught up in the previous points. I’m able to think point by point to the next point, and try to dictate as much as I can. ”
He is most proud of how collected he stayed against the pesky Youzhny, who tried to break Raonic’s rhythm by disputing calls and grunting and hollering in Russian. “Even though I lost my serve many times in the second and third set, I was able to keep it all together. I had maybe very little lapse of concentration,” he said.
Later, in the Melbourne press theatre, Raonic spoke fondly about yearly visits with his relatives and brother and sister in Montenegro, where his uncle was the country’s vice-president, and about his multicultural upbringing in Canada, where both his parents are engineers with postgrad degrees.
“In Canada I’ve learned a lot of things,” he said. “Canada provided me a better transition to all the travelling through different cultures, because you have a lot of diversity in Canada.”
He is fielding messages of support from his girlfriend and family. “I think today was the first time that my match was televised completely, the whole match, on the main sports channel back home,” he said. “So friends were able to see this. People now are saying ‘Keep it going, keep it going.’ My parents, they love me so much, and I love them. They’re always there for me.”
With matches ahead against David Ferrer and, if things keep going right, Rafael Nadal, Raonic acknowledged he still has a lot to learn.
“It’s tough to close out the matches, obviously. At a Grand Slam, it’s tougher to beat these top guys, especially in three out of five, knowing after two sets they have a chance to get back,” he said. “I know I’m getting there. I know I’m doing the right things. I’m playing well in the practices. I knew the results would come, and it’s showing here.”