Canada’s Milos Raonic now has in his corner a man who knows what it feels like to be sitting anxiously on the outside edge of the top 10 tennis players in the world, one who can offer guidance about how to bang that door down.
After a meteoric rise in the ATP rankings over his first two seasons, Raonic has remained between 13th and 17th since last August. He split with coach Galo Blanco last month and has hired former world No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic as his new coach.
The Croatian just retired from a 15-year playing career in April of 2012, one that included victories over Andy Roddick and a young Novak Djokovic. Ljubicic earned 10 ATP titles, including one at Indian Wells, Calif.; an Olympic bronze medal; and a historic Davis Cup victory in which Croatia became the first unseeded nation ever to win the event. Ljubicic can relate to the 22-year-old Canadian in many ways.
“He’s very interested in learning about how I went from No. 20 to No. 3 in the world, what it took to get there,” Ljubicic said by phone from London, where he and Raonic are preparing for next week’s Wimbledon tournament. “I’m sharing my experiences, and we’ve only just started, so we’ll have lots more time to talk about what it takes on the mental side to break through.”
Raonic’s family left Montenegro for Canada in 1994 when he was three, as conflict was tearing apart the former Yugoslavia. Ljubicic’s family fled war-torn Bosnia for Croatia in 1992 when he was 13. A year later, Ljubicic was asked to come train competitively at a tennis club in Italy, so he left his family at 14.
“My parents made it as easy as possible for my brother and me,” Ljubicic said. “Then they made it possible for me to have the opportunity to move to Italy and eventually become a professional player. It made me stronger on the court and in life.”
Ljubicic turned pro in 1998 and broke into the top 20 for the first time in February of 2005. Then, much like Raonic, he lingered around the top 20 for a while. It was Halloween of that same year when Ljubicic finally made the top 10. In 2006, he cracked the top five, catapulted to his best ranking of No. 3 in May, and stayed among top five until early 2007. He rose back into the upper echelon in 2010 and won Indian Wells, toppling Djokovic, Roddick and Rafael Nadal to do so.
“I remember the frustration of being on the cusp of breaking through, and you’re trying so hard and you want it so badly, but there are 10 or 20 players in front of you that want the same thing and things aren’t going exactly as you want,” Ljubicic said. “Hard work and sacrifice are the only ways to get it done. Milos knows that very well and he has no problem with that.”
After the split which Blanco, the former Spanish pro who had coached the Canadian since late 2010, Raonic approached Ljubicic in Rome. They have known one another from the practice courts during Ljubicic’s final seasons on Tour, and they were strikingly similar players in many ways. At 6 foot 5, 198 pounds, Raonic is similar in stature to Ljubicic, who competed at 6 foot 4, 202 pounds. They also share a knack for intimidating serves, but the coach says his player has a much better forehand than he ever had and looks forward to working with that.
“The first thing you see and are worried about is his serve, this is his biggest weapon and one of the most beautiful in the game,” Ljubicic said. “One thing he has more than I did is a huge forehand, a big weapon he can rely on in difficult situations. His game needs to be built around the big serve and huge forehand. His entire game should be more aggressive, he should be taking more risks, but it’s not so easy. Then comes the most challenging part of a coach’s job – to connect his game with his personality.”
The two have practised together in Monte Carlo, but Ljubicic said he isn’t changing much now in Raonic’s game. There isn’t enough time for big adjustments at this point in the season, when players are coming off clay and making the transition to grass.
Raonic will be the No. 17 seed at Wimbledon, facing Carlos Berlocq of Argentina in the first round. In the first two Grand Slam events this season, Raonic made it to the round of 16 in the Australian Open, and played through three rounds at the French Open. He was upset by No. 54 Ivan Dodig of Croatia in the second round of the grass-court warmup Aegon International this week.
“My game was always dangerous,” Ljubicic said, “and I lost to some guys that I shouldn’t, but I also beat the best guys more than once, trying to make something big happen and not worrying too much if I lose in the first round here and there.
“He [Raonic] is only 22 now, and in two to three years, he has to be ready to make something huge happen. He may have to sacrifice some results. So far in his career, things were going only positive, but now sometimes things will be difficult. But he’s a really smart kid and willing to work.”