Rogers Cup Preview: After four years of rapid rise, can Raonic win in Toronto?

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When I first saw an unknown Canadian teenager named Milos Raonic lose 6-4, 6-4 to Rafael Nadal in Japan in October 2010, his strengths and weaknesses were clear.

His game was huge. Raonic whacked massive forehands from behind the baseline, and Nadal couldn’t lob over his 6’5″ frame. Raonic hit 14 aces, at speeds up to 227 kilometers per hour, and won 30 out of 35 points on his first serve. But Nadal tied up Raonic’s spindly legs, ran him into corners, attacked his shaky backhand and wore down the youngster from Thornhill, Ont.

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Nobody expected much from me,” Raonic told me. “It was a chance for me to show the world what I can do.”

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Fast-forward five months later, and I saw Raonic trounce the number 10 and 22 seeds at the Australian Open.

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But in the round of 16, the Spanish grinder David Ferrer exploited Raonic’s impatience and lack of consistency, endurance and return game, and Raonic made 68 unforced errors.

Raonic has worked hard the past four years to overcome those flaws.

Now, as he comes home to Toronto ranked 7th in the world, he has the tools to possibly win the Rogers Cup.

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He has beefed up his legs to add power and torque to his missile serves, especially his high-kicking second serves that often ace or handcuff opponents who can’t deal with high balls on their backhand. Raonic has also worked hard to improve his footwork, backhand, and mental toughness on crunch points.

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He’s become adept at grooving into a rhythm and winning his service games handily. Against upstart Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon, he won 9 straight games at love on his serve, a phenomenal stat.

But Raonic’s historic run to the Wimbledon semi-finals also showed areas for improvement. He’s troubled by balls to his wings or sliced at his feet, and he’s still building confidence at net — the domain of his idol Pete Sampras. Like other young players, Raonic can’t extricate himself quickly enough from bad patches. Despite his efforts at conditioning, the big Canadian still can’t move easily enough to outlast grinders like Nadal, Djokovic or Ferrer bent on wearing him out. Most importantly, Raonic still repeatedly fails to take advantage of opportunities to break serve.

To beat the big guns in Toronto, Raonic will have to learn how to solve superior opponents who consistently win close matches. As Federer’s sidekick Gavin Rossdale sang in Bush, “it’s the little things that kill”, and so far, the Big Four have been killing Raonic on those. In the very first game of the Wimbledon semis, Federer dipped a forehand at Raonic’s feet, Raonic looped an awkward forehand wide, lost his serve and never crawled back.

But Raonic’s greatest gift — along with his serve — is an ability to weigh his own strengths and weaknesses from a detached perspective. Like Federer, you can see Raonic thinking in silence on the court, and his press conference answers reveal an analytical mind and balanced way of reasoning.

Can he win the Rogers Cup this year? I think he can.

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–text and photos copyright Christopher Johnson, Globalite Media, all rights reserved —

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