Charles Blouin-Gascon: “Game, Set, Match”

Written by: Charles Blouin-Gascon


***Charles Blouin-Gascon is a freelance journalist raised in French Montréal but based in Toronto. He is trying to turn his passion for sports into a career and runs his personal blog This is his first story for ONcourt.***


JOSH KAPLAN and Dan Poliwoda’s civics class assignment was to create a public service announcement “for an issue in Canada.” They came up with the YouTube video, “Milos Raonic PSA Song,” which has been viewed more than 23,000 times since last March. Now, nine months later, on November 17, the two 16-year-old students from Tannenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto are about to perform the song at the Air Canada Centre (ACC) in front of about 5,000 people. Both are wearing black suits—Kaplan with a tie, Poliwoda with a bowtie—and their hero, Milos Raonic, stands between them. While he might not be the Messiah-like figure Kaplan and Poliwoda sing about, Raonic is Canada’s best tennis player, and he is ready to play an exhibition match against tennis legend Pete Sampras once the song ends. But two things that Kaplan and Poliwoda sing about happen to be true: Raonic has made tennis more popular in Canada and he’s inspired many Canadians. Poliwoda writes that performing at the ACC gave him “the feeling of being infinitely powerful and that nothing would stop me. The smallest thing can turn into something big, all you need is effort.” And in Raonic’s case, a big serve also goes a long way.

AT THE NATIONAL BANK court of Montreal’s Uniprix Stadium, the stands are packed with supporters draped in flags of Chile, who have painted their faces or brought whistles, cans, vuvuzelas—anything that’s noisy, really. The crowd is rowdy before, between and just about during points as well—which of course is frowned upon in tennis. Someone says that it’s because most of the fans are South Americans: “They’re loud and proud.”

It may feel like the Davis Cup, but this is an August 2009 Rogers Cup first-round match. Chile’s Fernando Gonzalez is 11th in the ATP World Tour rankings, and he’s rested and experienced. Meanwhile, Canada’s Milos Raonic has already played two qualifying matches just to reach the main draw. Only 18 years old, he isn’t well known among Canadians and maybe partially because of this most spectators are supporting Gonzalez. The 29-year-old star is exuberant. He laughs, smiles, claps and talks to himself, depending on the outcome of each point. Not Raonic. Through it all, the young Canadian remains calm. At six-foot-five, he towers over the shorter Gonzalez, and his talent is obvious—his serve is already on par with the best ATP players, and Nadal will later call the stroke “unbelievable.” But the rest of his game is lacking, which is why it’s not surprising when Raonic blows a match point, then loses two sets and the match. He’s good, all right, but it’s still just potential.

OVER TWO YEARS LATER, Raonic is fulfilling this potential. Now 20, he played the exhibition match against Sampras last November. The event, dubbed “The Face-Off: Sampras VS Raonic: Hero and Prodigy,” celebrated not only Raonic’s rise, but also the best Canadian tennis talent. Also appearing were Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak, ranked twenty-first on the WTA Tour in 2009, and Eugénie Bouchard, best known for having won this past summer’s Wimbledon doubles junior event. Still, the main attraction was Sampras. The American retired in 2003 but remains as big a draw as there is in tennis today—his 14 Grand Slam titles probably the reason for it. “Sampras will attract the crowd,” says Anne Attia, director of member services at Montreal’s Ile des Soeurs Tennis Club, “and Raonic will benefit from it.”

At No. 31, Raonic is currently Canada’s highest ranked player ever. He has a chance to accomplish what Greg Rusedski could have, before donning British colours in May 1995 and rising to fourth in the world. Raonic could become Canada’s first great singles champion. This potential rests mainly on his stellar first half to the 2011 season, when he jumped 97 spots in the rankings in six weeks of play. Raonic has since been ranked as high as No. 25 and is now hailed as a rising ATP star. His 2011 season was not a fluke: his serve is better than most players’, and his forehand is strong.

But now comes the hard part, which is for Raonic to sustain his ranking. In the ATP, players must defend their points from the previous year. In the first few months of 2012, Raonic will have to defend the thousand-plus points he earned before May this year, including 205 for a fourth-round loss at the Australian Open, 250 for winning the SAP Open in San Jose and 300 for a final at the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis.

In other words, if Raonic has a difficult first half next season he will plummet in the rankings. Michael Emmett, tennis director at Mayfair Tennis Clubs, thinks Raonic shouldn’t bother about it and instead concentrate on improving. “If he’s getting better,” Emmett says, “the results will take care of themselves.”

Raonic has one advantage going into next year. Simon Bartram, tennis director of Toronto Lawn Tennis Club, says, “He’s in a position where he can pick and choose his tournament schedule.” Raonic can benefit from his rise on the ATP World Tour by picking and choosing his tournaments next year, by entering a few select tournaments—where he might be seeded, and where the payoff is potentially large—rather than many smaller ones. This grants him more time to perfect his craft, which in turn increases his likelihood of success at the tournaments he does enter.

Raonic needs more than a devastating serve because men’s tennis has changed since the days of serve-and-volleyers like Sampras or Patrick Rafter, who would dictate every rally with a strong first serve and an attacking volley. In 2011, elite players have the backhand, the passing shot and the counterattacking forehand—a heavy serve like Raonic’s isn’t enough.

THE FEBRUARY 2011 SAP Open final in San Jose is winding down. Raonic takes five steps toward the base line, pulls his right foot behind his left, and bounces a tennis ball 10 times with his left hand. As he does, his right hand holds his Wilson Blade 98 racket perpendicular to the ground. The crowd is silent. With the final bounce, he lifts his left foot, brings his hands together—his left hand on top of the right—swaying them up and down, and up and down, throws the ball in the air, then brings his racket behind his head, and bends his knees and jumps as he explodes through the ball. Raonic’s left foot falls to the ground. He prepares for a forehand but there’s no need—Fernando Verdasco’s return goes in the net. Raonic puts his racket in his left hand, then clenches his right hand in a fist by his thigh, screams twice, puts the racket back in his right hand and walks calmly to the net to congratulate Verdasco on a hard-fought match. They shake hands together, then with the chair umpire, and Raonic turns around, hands in the air, to acknowledge the crowd. He walks across the court, exhales once, twice, three times, and hugs his team members sitting courtside. Then he smiles and exhales again. Raonic has done it. He’s the first Canadian to win an ATP World Tour singles event in 16 years.

Raonic arrived in Canada at age three from Podgorica, Montenegro, with his parents and two siblings, and the family settled in Thornhill, Ontario. He started playing tennis with his father at age eight, with a ball machine early in the morning or late in the evening—court fees at the Blackmore Tennis Club in Richmond Hill, Ontario, are cheaper at 6:30 a.m. or 9 p.m. He entered many tournaments in his teens, winning some and losing others, and it’s with coach Casey Curtis, now director of high performance coaching at Mayfair Tennis Clubs, that he improved most. In 2007, he entered the Tennis Canada development program at the National Tennis Centre in Montreal. The following year, he became the national indoor under-18 champion. “I’m not sure that would qualify as a big win,” the Mayfair’s Emmett says cautiously. “Raonic was clearly the best player. That’s the problem with tennis in Canada: if you’re really good, you don’t have any equals.” To address this deficiency in stiffer competition, last season Raonic moved to Barcelona, where he now trains with his coach, former ATP professional Galo Blanco. In 2011, Raonic’s record was 31–19. “Raonic has got so much upside,” says Emmett, “that I can’t see how his game could peter out.”

WIMBLEDON IS THE most prestigious tennis tournament, and Raonic is injured. He hasn’t withdrawn yet, but it won’t be long. His second-round opponent, Gilles Muller, is a crafty veteran but clearly the underdog in this match. On the Wimbledon grass, Raonic’s serve and forehand give him a chance against most opponents—though not this time. The injury happens in the fourth game, on the Canadian’s serve and with him leading 2­–1. Raonic wants to hit a forehand, but he slips because his left leg doesn’t follow when his right leg plants on the grass. He softens the fall with his hands, but throws his racket as he toils away in pain on his left side. After a 15-minute delay and with his right thigh wrapped, he’s back on the court but limping. Leading 3–2, he withdraws. The match lasts 23 minutes, and already his 2011 Wimbledon tournament is over.

Tennis is cruel. Pierre Lamarche, tennis pro at Toronto Tennis City and ACE Tennis, says, “It’s a fight with yourself to better yourself.” Two players do their best to outsmart the other to win points, games, sets and matches. The sport combines intelligence, tactics, endurance, power and grace, usually on every shot. Every player is for himself and by himself, doing all he can to beat his opponent as well as his inner thoughts. For every match, there’s a winner and a loser, and the winner’s prize is that he must start again the following day, and the one after should he win again, and again until there is no match left to be played and the tournament has crowned one champion and many more losers. The players are trained to look ahead, but what happens when there’s nothing to look ahead to because of injury?

RAONIC IS SAID to be at full strength now. “He has that X factor,” says Nima Naderi, editor-in-chief of Tennis Connected. “That ultimate belief that he’s got the rocket serve, and that cockiness but humbleness that he knows he can get himself out of trouble.” It’s one thing to be a technically sound tennis player, but it’s another to be an elite one. Bartram agrees that playing competitive tennis is different. “You need that ability to compete, that ability to put it all on the line,” he says. “You have to play many matches to be successful.”

In Canada, success in tennis has been hard to come by. Every gain that Raonic makes in the world rankings, he continues to be Canada’s highest male ranked player—and he has been since he became No. 156. It’s true that in 1989 Canada won the Sunshine Cup—the biggest junior team event—but then the team’s members never fulfilled their potential. Sebastien Lareau and Daniel Nestor did win a gold medal at the 2002 Sydney Olympics, granted, and Nestor is now one of the best doubles players in history. Yet too often Canadian players have been one-and-done in singles competitions. For instance, Simon Larose, from Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, beat ex-No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten and advanced to the third round of the 2003 Rogers Cup. But that was it, the highlight of his career, which ended in 2005 at age 27 amid allegations of cocaine abuse. Lamarche thinks that Canada has never had difficulty developing the play of its most promising young players, and that the problem has rather been a lack of players at all levels.

In the past few years, Tennis Canada has used the success of the Rogers Cup to pour money into the creation of National Centres in Montreal and Toronto, with a third planned for Vancouver. The sport must continue to grow, and Raonic’s success can make a difference. He can become a role model for aspiring tennis players. “I see young kids coming out,” Emmett says, “and they want to be Milos Raonic.” With a bigger pool of talent, the likelihood of Tennis Canada developing a singles champion can only increase. Since not every player will fulfill his potential, it’s important that there are many players to choose from.

Not everybody is convinced, though. Conrad Pineau, tennis school director at Ile des Soeurs Tennis Club, wonders how much difference one player can make. Raonic is not Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer. Thirty-first in the world is great, in other words, but it’s still not good enough to create a mass following and hero worship. “The Canadians aren’t fanatic enough,” says Pineau, “that they bow down to their idols.”

Attia believes the impact of Raonic on the growth of tennis in Canada depends on the media. “Someone has to pave the way,” she says. “Canada needs to find its locomotive.” The tale of Aleksandra Wozniak should be kept in mind. Like Raonic, she soared through the WTA rankings in 2008 and became the first Canadian in 20 years to win a WTA singles at the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford. Like Raonic, she suffered an injury in 2010 that forced her to miss months of competition. She currently ranks No. 105.

Then again, the debate could be moot. Maybe Canada is further along than everybody thinks. There is promising national talent other than Raonic—Vasek Pospisil, Rebecca Marino, Wozniak and Bouchard, to a new a few. “We have to understand that it’s not because we are Canadian,” says Attia, “that we can’t be among the best in the world.”

Case in point being Canada’s victory, 3–2, over Israel that propelled the country to the Davis Cup world group for the fourth time in its history. Canada earned the victory in large part thanks to Pospisil. Over three September days in Israel, the 21-year-old played over eight hours, winning his three matches including the last one against No. 187-ranked Amir Weintraub. By then, Raonic was just easing back into action from his July surgery. He was a non-factor, losing to the same Weintraub that Pospisil beat convincingly.

IT’S GAME POINT at the ACC, and Sampras can only shake his head as he misses another Raonic serve. He walks back to his chair muttering to himself as if to say, nothing you can do. He looks back to the two women sitting in the front row of the ACC, whom Raonic barely missed with the 200-kilometre-per-hour serve. The hard court surface of the ACC plays to Raonic’s strengths, namely a barrage of heavy serves and forehand winners. By then, Raonic has the match in hand—having won the first set 7–6 (4) and leading 4–1 in the second. It’s a foregone conclusion he will win, but the end result doesn’t mean anything. Rather, SAP and Lagardère Unlimited organized the event for Tennis Canada to grow the sport and to celebrate its best players, to give Raonic the chance to play a match against the player he grew up idolizing and to give Sampras the chance to compete again in the sport that he loves.

After the match, both players thank the crowd for having attended. Raonic says, “It’s still going to take a few days to settle in, but I would like to thank (Sampras) for being my idol . . . I’ll still look up to him more than ever.” Sampras says that Raonic “can go as high as he wants to,” as long as he maintains his impressive serve. “I have seen a lot of big serves in my day,” he says “but this kid’s serve is bigger than big.”

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