Someone gave Milos Raonic the nickname “Avatar” because of the skinny legs on his 6-foot-5 frame.
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His vanquished foe in the final of the SAP Open in San Jose, ninth-ranked Fernando Verdasco, says Raonic has the upper body of a 12-year-old.
Be that as it may, the 20-year-old Raonic has the serving arm of a powered-up Pete Sampras. In his first ATP title run in San Jose, Raonic showed he is well on his way to becoming Canada’s best player ever and very possibly could be challenging for major titles by this summer.
He’s that good and that imposing.
“I played well when he let me on his serve because I think there must be another league for he and (6-foot-10 Croatian player Ivo) Karlovic because it’s like another sport,” Verdasco said. “When you serve every time 140 mph and every time you have chance he’s going to the line, you can’t do anything. Plus, from the baseline, he’s a better player than Karlovic. Sometimes, I would put the return in (and) he was hitting a lot of winners off his forehand and wasn’t making any mistakes."
In his 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5) victory over Verdasco, Raonic showed off not only a first serve that reached 149 mph – well above just about everyone on tour now, including speed record-holder Andy Roddick – but also a powerful, varied forehand, a solid and occasionally lethal two-handed backhand, decent touch at the net and composure under fire.
He’s not always calm, cool and collected, as evidenced by his coach scolding him for a negative attitude after an early round loss in Johannesburg, South Africa, two weeks ago. He’s smart and ambitious, however.
During the week in San Jose, he came through a field that included title holder Verdasco, 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, two-time Grand Slam tournament champion Lleyton Hewitt, high-flying Frenchman Gael Monfils (whom he never got to play in the semifinals because Monfils pulled out with a wrist injury) and former world No. 4 James Blake. Raonic never looked rattled.
When you can flatten out a serve that nearly breaks your foe’s hands off, can slice wicked serves out wide and throw in huge kickers, you are in great shape and able to tinker with other parts of your game because you essentially are unbreakable.
“His serve is huge, and I hear people comparing him to Pete Sampras and I remember watching Sampras when I was a kid and everyone talking about his rocket of a serve, and I looked at the speed gun and it was around 126 (mph),” Blake said after going down to the Canadian. “I watched Milos ace me with a second serve tonight, and it was around 123. It’s a big difference in how the game has changed in technology and how the game is getting bigger.”
Raonic does not have a big head yet, likely because he emigrated to Canada as a 3-year-old from war-torn Montenegro and life was never easy for his family. His parents are both engineers, and they have helped him keep life in perspective. Three of his grandparents were professors. He finished high school at age 16 and was still taking a college course during his run to the fourth round of this year’s Australian Open, where he upset No. 10 Mikhail Youzhny before falling to David Ferrer.
He says he has completed six online courses in finance and plans to keep up his course work so that when he retires he doesn’t want to have to do more than two years to get his degree.
He made the most of his time at Canada’s National Tennis Centre but, in the fall, decided he needed more hard-core training in Spain. He hired Spanish coach Galo Blanco and, in the offseason, hit with the tireless likes of Nicolas Almagro, Tommy Robredo and Alberto Montanes. In Australia, he practiced twice with Verdasco.
“It was a great environment to compete in. It was a way to get more experience,” he said. “I believe in myself, the work I’ve done, the team I have around me, and I know I’m in a productive environment where I can achieve the goals I want to achieve and there’s not much that can get in the way of it.”
With his title run, Raonic became the first Canadian since Greg Rusedski (who eventually became a British citizen) in 1995 to win an ATP title and the youngest ATP title winner since Marin Cilic won the New Haven title at age 19 in 2008. Raonic rose to a career-high No. 59 when the rankings were released Monday, up 25 spots from the previous week.
In some ways, the muscular Verdasco, who has spent hundreds of hours in the gym trying to buff up and strengthen his game, was amazed that he was overpowered. Coincidentally, Raonic and Verdasco will play in the first round in Memphis next week.
“What surprises me is that he has (long) legs and, if you see him in the locker room, he has the body of a 12-year-old and has half (the size) of my shoulder and serves 140 all the time,” the Spaniard said with a smile. “Nobody knows the future, but I think he can be top 20 very soon. But there are a lot of guys who can return serve well, and they are not going to give him the top 20 for free.”
The curly haired Raonic doesn’t seem to expect that anyone is going to hand him anything. He has played well for much of the past six weeks, but it’s a long season and plenty of youngsters have flashed great talent in the past and then hit the wall. He isn’t planning to do so.
“There are a lot of places I can improve upon,” he said. “I don’t mind the work. I’m going to work on getting better off the ground, on the return, transitioning to the net so I can put more pressure, and I’m going to keep working on my serve because a lot of people say it’s amazing, but I think it can get better. I can play at this level. It’s going to be tough to jump into the top 10 right now, but I think I’m on the right way.”