On the Arthur Ashe Court at the U.S. Open in September, Milos Raonic squared off in the round of 16 against Andy Murray, a hotly anticipated match between the rising young star from Canada against the veteran Scot in search of his first Grand Slam title.
Playing near-perfect tennis, Murray, then No. 4 in the world, blistered a serve off Raonic’s backhand to seal the sweep, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2, en route to winning the tournament at Flushing Meadows. “Sorry,” Murray told Raonic at the net. “I got lucky a few times.” To which Raonic answered, “Don’t be sorry, it was simply amazing.”
Three months later, Raonic was seated in a small restaurant in Barcelona for an interview during a lunch break from off-season training. His goal for 2013, he said, is to play his way into the year-end ATP World Tour Final. Yet he knows the measure of players is taken in the Grand Slams, and while Raonic doesn’t dwell on the thrashing by Murray, the match demonstrated the gulf between his mental and physical capacity versus that of the elite four in tennis – Murray, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. They’ve won 33 of the last 36 Grand Slam tournaments since 2004, while in eight majors Raonic has yet to get beyond the fourth round.
So to raise his game, he broke it down during off-season training in Barcelona, with the aim of building it to a level beyond his leave-off point in 2012. He enters the Australian Open this weekend as the No. 14 seed, though he’s lost three singles matches in tuneup events.
“The goal is to get fitter, stronger, especially in my upper body,” Raonic said in the Barcelona interview. “And I want to improve movement and positioning in the court, getting lower so I can be more agile. I want my off-season to be shorter next year. That means I want to be playing in the season-ending tournament in London. Only the top eight players get in, and I want to be there.”
In his first two years on Tour, he’s ascended from No. 156 to No. 13 by the end of 2012. With three tournament titles, $1.9-million in prize money and a punishing serve, he is earning respect on tour. Players greet him differently in locker rooms now, tournament organizers shower him with attention, and the hotel rooms are getting nicer. But slogging up the rankings from this point will be more daunting, and he’s not the only young rising star banging on the door.
His coach, former Spanish ex-pro Galo Blanco, said that he hadn’t played poorly versus Murray, but that his tactics were wrong, that he should have dictated with his monster serve. Raonic had tried various positional strategies on the court that day – playing back, playing high, coming into the net often – but nothing worked. Murray picked him apart, slugging remarkable winners and exposing the Canadian’s shortcomings, as the elite players will do in the majors.
Raonic’s close-knit team includes the three Spanish men he trusts with his athletic progress: Blanco, physical trainer Toni Estalella and physiotherapist Juan Ozón, who is with him from morning to night every day, doing upward of two to three hours of treatments and overseeing his food and vitamins. The program is customized to the different workloads and court surfaces Raonic faces in a year. All three men have worked with top Spanish players and have connections to first-rate facilities and hitting partners.
On a brisk Barcelona morning in early December, Raonic was chasing down balls on hard-court nestled among cobblestone paths and lush greenery.
“Don’t run around your backhand,” Blanco yelled.
Raonic took turns pounding big shots down the lines with two Wilson racquets, identical models, but strung two different ways. Blanco got behind each Raonic shot with his own racquet and analyzed the feel. They discussed the benefits of each as they tested them, trying to determine which racquet provided a heavier, more difficult ball for his opponents to return while also being most comfortable for Raonic to hit. Every detail counts.