TENNIS: Raonic inspires hope with play at US OPEN

Milos Raonic shows top 10 within reach after proud US Open showing

by Christopher Johnson

At one point during his loss to Andy Murray at the US Open on Monday night, Canadian ace Milos Raonic set aside his game face, looked into the stands and said something like “what am I supposed to do?”

That reaction speaks volumes about Raonic, and his rise up the rankings in men’s tennis, where he’s already perhaps the greatest Canadian single’s player ever.

In fact, there was nothing Raonic could do, at least in this match, which Murray won 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.  Murray was playing fantastic tennis. He twisted and hit a no-look shot down the line for a winner. He hit amazing, deep, penetrating returns on Raonic bombs that have aced other players. Down a few break points, Murray painted the corners with serves for aces. On one serve, Raonic stood in the doubles tram line of the ad court, only to watch Murray put the ball in a tiny window and ace him on that backhand side anyways.

On one of the blistering serves, which hit the line and kicked high overhead, Raonic waved his hand high in the air to challenge the call, as if waving a white flag of surrender to a superior opponent on the night. That’s when he lamented, if my lip-reading is correct, “what am I supposed to do?”

Raonic, showing his awareness of the event and his role in it, was merely acknowledging what everybody else could observe. When Murray plays like that, nobody can beat him. Playing like that, Murray beat Rafael Nadal 6-0 on his way to winning the Japan Open final last fall. Rebounding from his Wimbledon final loss, Murray caught fire in London and shellacked Roger Federer in straight sets to win the Olympic tennis at Wimbledon.

When they met at the net, the Scotsman Murray apologized for his luck on a few shots.

“Don’t be sorry,” Raonic said. “It was simply amazing.”

Later, Murray called it “by far my best match of the tournament.”

Raonic agreed. “It was a tough match, he was just too good,” Raonic told reporters after the match. “I was never comfortable and he played extremely well. This was a big loss, I really gave everything out there and I’ve never felt such a defeat.”

Indeed, Murray’s on top of his game, playing better than ever, and he won’t surprise many tennis fans if he goes on to win his first major at the US Open. That would likely boost the confidence of Raonic, because even though he lost in straight sets, he handled himself well in a losing cause, and showed the world that the top 10 is within his reach.

Though he double faulted twice in a key early game, and hit “only” 14 aces, Raonic shouldn’t be too disappointed about his play. “This was my eighth Grand Slam and I’m pretty new to this,” he said. “I’ve only played here twice. Sometimes I get frustrated with myself.”

Yet Raonic had a great week in New York. He hit 30, 30, and 29 aces in his first three matches. He trounced James Blake in front of an American crowd that ended up cheering for him toward the end of the match. He looked great in Lacoste shirts patterned after traditional Hudson Bay Company blankets valued by many Canadians. He showed he has one of the most dominating serves in tennis, on both first and second serves. He looked cool, keeping his composure and focus, staying in command of himself and most points. It prompted tennis legend John McEnroe to predict that Raonic could one day reach the top 5.

Raonic, in truth, still has a long way to go, and much to work on. Against Murray, he slid around the court, unable to chase down shots that the top 5 players — Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Ferrer — routinely track down on the way to grinding out victories. Raonic couldn’t take advantage of his Maple Leaf Missiles, allowing Murray to take command of points on the way to breaking Raonic’s serve four times. Raonic looked awkward at the net at times, though he’s trying to improve that vital aspect of his power game. He didn’t return well enough to even have a single break point on Murray’s serve.

Perhaps more importantly, he couldn’t find a way to “solve” Murray, to snap him out of his post-Olympic spell, to alter strategy fast enough to derail Murray’s train of brilliance.

Raonic, understandably, looked confounded and frustrated. It showed in his body language, and his shots, especially toward the end of the third set. He looked very much like the 21-year old that he is, a developing phenom for sure, but still a level lower than the great players who’ve created the Golden Age of tennis.

But playing under the lights on what turned out to be the feature match of Labor Day in Arthur Ashe Stadium, one of the greatest venues in sports, Raonic gave Canadians and tennis fans something to hope for. He showed that he belongs in the second week of a major, and that his so-called “coming out” party at the Australian Open in 2011, when he reached the round of 16 before losing to David Ferrer, was no fluke. Raonic has now won three titles on tour, and he has comported himself well in big events. Rebounding from hip surgery, which some feared could curtail his career, he’s moved swiftly up the rankings this year. He won events in Chennai and San Jose, nearly beat Jo-Wilfred Tsonga at the Olympics, and went toe-to-toe with Murray for two hours at the US Open in prime-time across America.

“It’s tough in there [Arthur Ashe Stadium], it’s something I haven’t really experienced,” said Raonic. “It’s windy constantly and coming from all different directions. So it was hard to really just step in on the ball.”

Raonic will have to keep working hard to improve every aspect of his game, in order to crack the top 10 on a tour deep with talent. But it’s looking increasingly possible. With a 33-14 record, Raonic has already earned more than $800,000 this year. Ranked 16th on the ATP tour coming into the US Open, Raonic is showing that he has the power, maturity and intellect to eventually overtake a number of players ahead of him, such as Dolgopolov, Gasquet, Cilic, Almagro, Monaco, Isner and number 9 Tipsarevic, who Raonic beat to win the Chennai Open earlier this year.

For now the top 8, from Federer down to Del Potro, look impossible to crack. Raonic is 1-7 against top 5 opponents, only beating Murray in Barcelona this year. McEnroe, who does know a thing or two about tennis, might be hyping Raonic to soon. Reaching the top 5 still seems years away, and it would probably require the retirement of Federer and Nadal. Nevertheless, Raonic is proving that he’s one of the most exciting young players to watch, and he’s fast becoming a crowd favorite.

The answer to his question during Monday’s match, “what am I supposed to do?”, is clear: be patient. Work hard, stay healthy, learn from your losses, and you will crack the top 10. It’s only a matter of time, and Raonic seems to get it.

“I need to improve a lot of things in my game if I’m going to compete with guys at the top level,” said Raonic. “But I also want to learn as much as I can. Every experience at this level is a new one. I have to deal with them the best I can.”