Milos Raonic come on down. You’re the next contestant on: who’s the next big thing in tennis. It’s a kneejerk game that’s fun to play whenever a young player upsets a top seed, wins a tournament or dates a supermodel. In this case the next big thing is indeed quite big: Raonic stands 6-feet-5 and can serve through walls. He announced himself with a fourth round showing in Melbourne, then cemented his player-of-the-future status with his first tour victory in San Jose last week. He beat No. 8 Fernando Verdasco in that final, a feat Raonic duplicated again this week in Memphis. That’s impressive. No doubt Verdasco was looking for revenge, and even after seeing Raonic’s best fastball he still couldn’t hit it. After that three-set victory, Raonic was on court the next day and won 7-6 in the third over Radek Stepanek. No doubt Irina Shayk will be in his friends box by the finals.
The men’s game certainly could use the new blood as things have gotten a little stale at the top. Perhaps Djokovic will overtake Federer and Nadal, but he’s not exactly a breath of fresh air. What makes Raonic’s ascension doubly noteworthy is his homeland: Canada. Born in Montenegro, Raonic’s family moved to the Great White North when he was 3 years-old. Yes, the land of slap shots, maple syrup, strange bacon, and RUSH may finally produce a legit tennis champion. Entering this week ranked No. 59, Raonic is already just a few spots away from setting the record for highest-ranked Canadian male. His win last week in San Jose was the first tour singles win for a Canadian man since Greg Rusedski in 1995. Not long after that victory, Rusedski took up citizenship in England. While Canada lost its best tennis hopeful to date, England adopted yet another Grand Slam disappointment. Advantage: irony.
Oddly enough, Raonic and Rusedski have quasi-similar games. Like Rusedski, Raonic is a big fella who moves pretty well despite his size. He also relies heavily on a lights-out serve. Raonic regularly tops 140 mph on the radar gun on his first delivery, and doesn’t ease up much on the second. He follows the serving paradigm set by latter-day Pete Sampras (his idol): kill on the first serve; maim severely on the second. Is it the most compelling tennis? Hardly. But the scoreboard will never hold it against him.
Unlike Rusedski, though, whose ground strokes were mostly a bluff on his way to net, Raonic is a bona fide baseliner. He can hit with power from either wing, and the free points from his serve afford him a freedom to be bold during ground stroke exchanges. Also unlike Rusedski, Raonic seems to be a gamer. While he occasionally struggles to control his temper, so far he hasn’t shrunk from big occasions.
If anything Raonic plays like a more physical Mario Ancic. The two players even resemble one another in appearance, although not as much as Ancic looks like a young Ralph Macchio. (By the transitive property, Raonic undoubtedly possesses a beautiful crane kick). Also armed with a rough serve and penetrating groundies, Ancic started his career with a lot promise, too. He won his first tournament when he wasn’t much older than Raonic and found himself in the top 10 the following year. Ancic was 22 when he lost to Federer in the quarters at Wimbledon (2006), and many believed it was only a matter of time before he won that title. Injuries and illness got in his way and now Ancic is ranked just south of 500, forced to fall back on a law degree he acquired during his convalescence. Except for spotty appearances on Entourage, nobody has heard much from Macchio, either.
So perhaps tempering expectations of Raonic is in order. Remember just a few summers ago when mammoth-serving John Isner stormed the tennis world with a finals appearance in Washington? At the time all the pundits predicted great things for Isner: a spot in the top 10, deep runs at Grand Slams, and Wimbledon matches that take a single afternoon. Isner has time, but none of those promises have been kept. Between the two, Raonic does look to be the superior prospect. If he stays healthy and focused, there’s every reason to believe he’ll fulfill his potential.
If that happens, maybe people will be able to watch Raonic play a match and not think of this: