Shortly after the start of his Thursday evening match, a ballboy moved Milos Raonic’s water bottle and the world began to spin off its axis.
The umpire was worried that a towel draped across Raonic’s chair would blow off in the windy conditions. The kid picked one of Raonic’s three water bottles off the ground and laid it on top of the chair.
Raonic stared grimly over for a bit, then asked him to put it back where he’d found it. The kid froze. Raonic gestured impatiently – “on the ground.” The poor kid – monkey in this particular middle – placed it back on the court.
A few minutes later, the towel blew off. The same beleaguered kid tried to weigh it down with a second towel. Raonic stopped again. He doesn’t like two towels on his chair. Or a single towel bunched up on top of the chair. He likes the towel laid over the arm of the chair, just so. He got his way again.
"I don't think you should be telling people to touch my stuff," Raonic said later. He wasn't kidding. He was 180 degrees from kidding. In this small example, you got some sense of exactly how ordered Raonic wants his world. He wants to control all that within his environment that is controllable. Which is ultimately very little.
Raonic struggled mightily with world No. 124 Peter Gojowczyk (7-6, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6). Until the death, it was a very near thing.
“I showed courage at the end there and started going for it. That was missing for a few hours,” Raonic said. It was a remarkably clear-headed self-assessment.
Raonic’s coach, Ivan Ljubicic, credits Gojowczyk with providing the spark that drove the Canadian through Wimbledon. Gojowczyk manhandled Raonic at a grass-court event in Halle, the tournament before he arrived in London.
Maybe it’s a sign. Almost certainly not, but that’s what we’ll all be saying in a week’s time if Raonic is still here.
Ljubicic, only 35 years old and a former world No. 3, has been working with Raonic for just over a year. In terms of game, the two are nearly identical – big men, big serve, big forehand, just barely regulation-sized everything else.
In terms of personality, they’re a delightfully mismatched married couple.
When he played, Ljubicic famously treated tennis as a lucrative hobby.
“I’m a lot more relaxed, easygoing,” Ljubicic said, asked how he compares to his student. “I’m the one you had to push to practice.”
What he brings to Raonic’s development is a laconic, middle-European ease. One feels comfortable asserting that Ljubicic never gave a single moment’s thought to what was on his chair, or in what order.
Raonic wants to develop his two-dimensional game. Ljubicic wants him to concentrate on the things he does well.
“Improving your weaknesses makes your mid-level higher. You win matches with your strengths,” shrugged Ljubicic, making a lot of sense while trying to talk himself out of a job.
Raonic bemoaned his own lack of “discipline” in an easy first-round victory.
“I’ve got to play at a high level throughout the entire match. I felt I fluctuated a little bit too much today.”
Ljubicic would prefer Raonic didn’t sweat the little things. Against inferior opposition, he should sit back and play simply.
“You don’t need to bring your A game against these guys, with all due respect.”
“All due” in this case being a byword for ‘very little.’
They also differ on Raonic’s current place in the tennis world. Raonic understandably wants to see himself among the elite. He was gutted by his loss to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon semi-final, gutted in the way a man who really thought he should have won is gutted.
He’s 23 years old. In the mind of any 23-year-old, the future is entirely theoretical. The only real thing is yesterday and today. For Raonic, his tennis moment is right now.
Despite the success of this year, Ljubicic doesn’t see it as an arrival. He doesn’t yet see his player as an ongoing threat to the very best. While all the world around him is losing its head, Ljubicic is the one telling Raonic to take a great many deep breaths.
Is he under pressure to win a major? Say, this major?
“I don’t think. Not yet,” Ljubicic said. “I think next year [the pressure] is going to come. Week by week, you have points to defend. You have huge expectations where a quarter-final becomes a disappointment rather than a success. If you want to be big, you have to find a way to deal with that. We are not in that position quite yet.”
Though you can understand both sides of it, it’s a vexing proposition. The Big Four in men’s tennis is wobbling through a bad moment. It’s really more of a Big Two (Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic).
Raonic is back with a pack of players such as Stan Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych, who make up in power what they lack in elegance. He’s always got a puncher’s chance. To win a major, he needs the luck of a good draw, help from others and to play above himself on one or two nights.
That’s his focus. Ljubicic will take a big win if it comes, but philosophically, he wants Raonic to wait. He wants him to believe that the real addition his game requires is time.
This isn’t a power struggle. It’s two very different personalities working from two very different perspectives. One sees the opportunities slipping by; the other sees them piling up. It’s innocence versus experience.
What Raonic has to decide is whether or not he wants to take hold of his world by giving up some control over it.