Just a little more than five years ago, Milos Raonic made his first big headline at home.
Only 18, he qualified for the main draw at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. At the time, he was ranked 691st in the world.
Six hundred and ninety one is so far down the pecking order, you might be the 691st-best in the world at something right now – maybe parallel parking, or precision laundry folding.
“You stop for a second and you almost pinch yourself to see if it’s actually true,” Raonic said back then.
It’s not hard to imagine him speaking with such guileless enthusiasm these days. Rather, it’s impossible.
On Monday night, Raonic played in the latest game in U.S. Open history. He deservedly lost. He showed up for his postmatch press conference at 3 a.m. He wasn’t upset. He didn’t seem worked up in the least, in any of the many directions that sort of defeat might take you.
He seemed mildly frustrated, in the way that an accountant is mildly frustrated when you bring him your receipts in a shoebox.
“I thought in general it was a good match, if you sort of step away from it and you look at the whole thing,” he said, even more bloodlessly than it reads.
All this had been was a bad day at the office. Raonic has reached the point where you don’t bother getting upset about fourth-round losses in Grand Slams. Because the fourth round isn’t worth the emotional effort.
“I think next year [the pressure] is going to come,” Raonic’s coach, Ivan Ljubicic, said back when it was all still possible in New York.
“You have huge expectations where a quarter-final becomes a disappointment rather than a success.”
Raonic may be ahead of schedule on that one.
Ljubicic is a charming man, a former top-three player in the world. He and Raonic share a language and roughly the same culture. There are dozens of good reasons to have him around. One wonders if the one of them is as a memento mori: “You don’t want to end your career being this guy.”
At his peak, Ljubicic was what Raonic is right now – a dangerous power merchant no one wanted to play, but no one would ever have bet money on him to win a major tournament. His highlight was a single semi-final at the French Open.
Raonic is 23 years old. He’s got a decade ahead of him. That sort of career is his nightmare.
I watched Raonic’s first-round match sitting beside a chatty American coach who spent most of it narrating play. He was clearly in love with our boy, oohing and aahing at the brute force of Raonic’s game. I asked him where he thought Raonic would end up.
“Oh, he’ll be ranked five to 10 his whole career. He’ll never get any higher than that,” he said cheerily. That seems to be the consensus.
Maybe that’s why Raonic doesn’t seem best-pleased when he gets broken down by the nimble, undersized likes of a Kei Nishikori. It’s not just losing to a lesser-ranked player. It’s being reminded of all the things he cannot do on the court, and never will be able to. It’s a reminder of how this could end up.
That same sense of frustration suffused most of Eugenie Bouchard’s time here. She knew everyone was suddenly watching her. She felt that pressure.
“I feel like it’s a bit more normal if I win and a bit more of a disaster if I lose,” she said, which nicely encapsulates the perils of the high standard.
It’s a different sort than the pressure she’d felt at the French Open or Wimbledon. Though she was steadily going deep into Slams, that was still the pressure of introductions. You’re just getting to know someone. As long as they’re halfway decent, you tend to be kind in your judgments.
By the time Bouchard got to Flushing Meadows, trailing front-page glam shots and New York Times Magazine covers, this had become pressure of expectations. You’re not in the community theatre any more, where they’ll clap if the stage collapses. This is Broadway. The crowd paid real money. They want to be entertained. They are no longer forgiving of your bad days.
You could see that sort of pressure on the face of Victoria Azarenka. The Belarussian has had a long fall from a No. 1 ranking owing to injuries. After scraping into the quarter-finals against a qualifier, she nearly wept on the court. Later she told ESPN, “Sometimes, you forget life is beautiful.”
That’s what real pressure does – turns you into a maudlin philosopher.
From the Canadian perspective, that was the greatest takeaway from this U.S. Open. This isn’t about fun any more. This was the moment our tennis cohort went from a boutique outfit to a corporate operation. Through Bouchard and Raonic, Canada isn’t a comer any more. It’s arrived.
You can’t call what either player did in New York – Round of 16 appearances for each – a success or a failure. It falls into that nebulous turf just in between. Which may be worse. Neither put it together in any single match. Both alluded to nagging injuries. They were understandably worn down by a year filled with great incident.
Raonic will now head to Halifax in a few days to begin prep for a Davis Cup tilt with Colombia. Bouchard will take some time off. The tour never really ends. It’ll move to Asia in the coming weeks.
But some time between now and the Australian Open in January, both of these players are going to have to take a tremendous mental leap. This year was their “pinch yourself” moment. By the next, the world will be ready to pinch back.