Born in Montenegro and raised in Thornhill, Ont., budding superstar Milos Raonic is the first Canadian man to be ranked among the Association of Tennis Professionals’ top 15 singles players. His serve, which has clocked in at 250 kilometres an hour, is the most feared on the current circuit. This September, the 22-year-old will lead Canada into its first Davis Cup semi-final. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also handsome and charismatic, qualities that haven’t been lost on sportswear companies. In January, New Balance made Raonic the face of its first foray into pro tennis. Recently, he spoke to Globe Style Advisor about the importance of grace under pressure, how his older sister used to dress him and some of his favourite home-turf indulgences. (Hint: They’re edible.)
Tennis is often compared to a heavyweight fight. But instead of the body, it’s the psyche that gets pulverized. How do you stay focused?
It’s hard when they introduce players like Roger Federer and they’ll list his record: 17 Grand Slams, 70 or 80 titles. And I’ve only got four. But you forget all that when the points start. You just see [the opponent] as someone who’s trying to take something away from you.
If you could go back in time and play in any other era, which one would you pick?
It would have been pretty spectacular to be around during the [Bjorn] Borg and [John] McEnroe era because of all the style and characters back then. There were a lot more contrasting personalities than there are now.
You signed a deal with New Balance this year. Have you always been aware of your appearance? I read that, when you were growing up, you used to have your older sister dress you.
To clarify, my sister helped me decide what to wear to elementary school – not for high school and not for matches. I would practise early in the morning and I’d be the kid who’d want to shower and go to school in a track suit, but my sister would say, “No, no, no, you’re dressing up.”
With New Balance, I’m a part of the design process and that’s pretty special. I wouldn’t step onto the court feeling uncomfortable. Everything I wear reflects how I feel about specific events, particularly Grand Slams. The French Open and clay-court season are played in hotter conditions so the colours are a little bit brighter and louder. With Wimbledon, you try to go more classic. For the U.S. Open, it’s show time.
You travel all the time. What’s the one thing you always have in your bag besides your toothbrush?
My cellphone. I’m addicted to it. I get a lot of, how shall I say it, grief from members of my team for the amount of time I spend on my phone. It’s my way to stay in touch with family and friends and with what’s happening in sports. I’m a huge basketball fan, so the first thing I’m doing in the morning is waking up and checking the scores on my phone while I’m still in bed.
In 2011, you established the Milos Raonic Foundation, which helps disadvantaged kids. How active are you able to be with your charity while playing on the tour?
Because of my schedule, I don’t have as much time to be directly involved with it, but my parents do a lot of the heavy lifting and I try to be a part of it as much as I can. One day, when I’m done playing tennis, I’ll be able to make an even bigger impact with [the charity].
When you do get back to Toronto, are there any Canadian comforts you indulge in?
Mostly home cooking. But there’s a chicken-wing place that has 170 different flavours that I have to go to at least once and an all-you-can-eat sushi place near my house. I have a few unhealthy habits that I have to give in to.
Wimbledon kicks off at the end of June. Is that tournament in any way different for you?
With Wimbledon, there is an extra element of prestige. The players notice it. There are more rules, they’re not as lenient, there is more security, everything is amped up. You can’t play on the courts the Monday before it starts. I go a week early to train and you see them preparing, painting everything. It’s special.
You’ve said that your serve is the cornerstone of your game. If you had to sum up the secret to a great serve in one word, what would it be?
In one word? Not possible. In two words: hard work. I’ve always been obsessed with wanting to play all the time. I knew how important the serve can be. I saw it as not only a way to start a point but a way to finish a point. I’d go out alone and hit serves and be completely happy doing that. I’d serve, pick up the balls and serve again – for hours.
In tennis, the personality of the player is very much on display. When Canada and the rest of the world are watching you, what do you hope they see?
Character comes through not when you’re winning 6-0, 6-0, but when you’re 5-6 in the fifth set down two match points. The way I see it, it’s about inner belief and inner confidence. Knowing this is what I trained for, this is what I want and I’m going to approach it as best I can. I grew up idolizing Pete Sampras. He told me, “Champions know how to win even when they’re not playing their best.” That has stuck with me. During tough moments, I keep that in my mind to give myself a chance to win. Anyone can be an angel when they’re up.
This interview has been edited and condensed.