The rising sun, Canadian phenom Milos Raonic (above).
Beating Michael Llodra at the Australian Open in 3 straight, tight sets does not necessarily make us stand up and take notice of a guy. The Frenchman Llodra, a nice player with good hands and a nice one hand backhand, has squeezed a lot out of his slight frame, and probably had over-achieved to get his ranking up to the mid twenties, his seedline in Melbourne. Beating Bjorn Phau in round one, in a match by the same score, also doesn’t wow us. And then we laid our own eyes on the stunning talent that is Montenegran born Canadian Milos Raonic, who we will once again say, without hesitation, is the best player under 25 in all of North America. Soon he will hold that title without the age qualifier, as Raonic out played the current “title holder”, Andy Roddick, a few weeks back in Memphis in the final of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championsips, and Roddick was lucky to get out alive.
Back to Australia. Devoted Nadal haters that we are, we were hoping to see flat ball wizard Mikhail Youzhny and tenacious Spaniard David Ferrer battle it out in the round of 16 for the right to play Nadal. Both guys have given Nadal problems in majors on hardcourts, and Ferrer is still the only guy to beat Nadal at a major after dropping the first set. Youzhny had to do his part first. Raonic, Youzhny’s 3rd round opponent, did his part better. The kid who had played only a handful of pro tournaments on the main tour, who had never played a major, smoked Youzhny in 4 sets behind the livest serve we’ve seen on a 20 year old since Pete Sampras, a solid forehand, a deadly 2-handed backhand which he takes early and wreaks havoc with, and a beautiful transition game and gifted hands at net. By the way, the transition game, from baseline to net, by far the most neglected skill among the homogenized legions of boring baseline hackers that now define tennis, and which separates Raonic, among other things, has obviously gotten a big assist from Raonic’s coach, Spaniard Galo Blanco, who is also firmly on our radar.
Are we in love? Well, you know our philosophical opposition to 2-handed backhands, but we’re willing to overlook it when we gaze upon this kid and the full glory of his talented game. Ferrer, a gritty, all heart guy, ended Raonic’s Melbourne magic carpet ride in 4 sets in the round of 16. But Raonic came through qualifiers down under, which meant he had to win 3 best of 5 set matches before the tournament began. Ferrer was not his 4th opponent, he was his 7th, and still, it was a 4 set match that probably could have gone either way. Translation: Ferrer, nor anyone else, is looking forward to their first, or next meeting with this young monster.
Not Roddick, who prounounced himself lucky after Memphis, and who showered praise upon his young opponent, admitting that Raonic had taken it to him. Roddick was on the defensive all match, and literally pulled out passing shot after passing shot out of the clear blue sky to stave off Raonic. Certainly not James Blake, who the kid destroyed, and who would say afterward of the kid, who hit 149 MPH on the gun, that he had played a lot in his time against Pete Sampras, Roddick, and once even had Sam Querrey jam 10 consecutive aces down his throat, still a record, and that Raonic serve popped like no other’s.
Certainly not Mardy Fish nor Fernando Verdasco wait in eager anticipation of their next tangle with the kid. Raonic, stepping up to the plate in his first ever ATP final in San Jose against Verdasco, handled him in straight set tie-breakers. Then, because of an asinine and archaic ATP rankings system, had the good fortune of facing Verdasco in the first round at Memphis a day and a half later. Raonic, despite soaring up the rankings from world #209 in October, is now #37, but despite the meteoric rise, his ranking has not yet registered in terms of making the main draws at these events. But the system that has seen Raonic either wildcard or qualify his way into all of these events where he is already the best power player, was a lot less kind to Verdasco, whom Raonic handled once again, this time allowing the Spaniard to have a set.
Mardy Fish? He’s another top 15 guy who has now lost twice in a few weeks to Raonic. The kid served Fish a loss in the semis at Memphis, paving the kid’s way to the finals, his second consecutive final, and the first man in eons to win his first ATP tour final and then to make another ATP final in consecutive weeks. The first Canadian man to win an ATP singles title of any kind in more than 15 years. The first Canadian man…stop.
If there’s a real deal type to come out of nowehre faster in this game, then I haven’t seen it since Boris Becker won Wimbledon as a 17 year old. Last night, Fish, in heavy conditions, had been rolling on serve, taking some 89% of his first balls and cruising to easy holds, and the young tennis god was laboring, and had called the trainer to deal with his back/mid section. After the timeout, Raonic dumped a few anxious forehands into the net to go down love-30. They were less a product of his injury than the fact that the ball was moving so slow off Fish’s racquet on this horrible IW Plexipave Slow “hardcourt” that the fast reacting Raonic had too much time. Not so for Mardy.
Without a really, really big television one couldn’t even really glimpse Mardy Fish while he returned Raonic’s serve, basically from the 2nd row, having conceded the entire court plus an extra 6-7 meters so that he could even lay a string on Raonic’s bombs. It’s was a clinic for the kid–the injured kid–from there on out. Raonic embarrassed Fish in 3 straight games to take the 1st set 7-5, and then made short shrift of Fish in the 2nd set, taking 9 of the last 13 games in total. And Fish’s morale, to boot. Fish, a guy who prides himself on getting to the net, could barely get near the baseline, and he put an abundance of balls into the bottom of the net and watched Raonic crack forehand and backhand winners at will, Federer like droppers that make you go “Ooooh!”, and of course, the almighty ace, which is the biggest staple of the kid’s game right now.
Tomorrow, barring Raonic being unable to walk, we’d look for him to carve up America’s best young almost 19 year old, Ryan Harrison, in what will be an ugly bloodbath for the American in all likelihood. And then, in the round of 16, should Roger take care of business, is when we are sure to see the real fireworks. Raonic, at 15-3 so far this season with 5 wins over top 15 players, versus Federer, who really has looked quite good this year, having a tournament victory in Doha, a major semi appearance, and just 2 losses on the resume, both to Novak Djokovic.
A Chinese proverb states that it is far wiser to pay attention to the rising sun than the setting one, though we are not Roger fans of little faith. Raonic does have a weakness in terms of the return game. He has played an inordinate number of tie-breakers. But if we’re crazy about Grigor Dimitrov at around world #75, and he does hit the beautiful one hander for us, then we have to be crazy about Raonic, who has powered through on slow clay like hardcourts during his meteoric rise to world #37.
Rising sun? We’ll go with it, even if that seems a little quick to you from here. But we can just imagine what he’s going to be like on real hardcourts (acrylic Decoturf and not this soft synthetic garbage) that actually play fast in the true tradition of the game, this summer in Cincinnati and New York.
Hell on earth.
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