Canada’s Milos Raonic knew exactly who to talk to for a little guidance ahead of his first Olympic experience.
The rising tennis star said he met up with Wayne Gretzky last winter in Los Angeles and they chatted about the London Games while out for dinner.
“He told me that the competition is a big thing for sure, but he said the most special thing was meeting other athletes and just learning from them and hearing different stories,” Raonic said Thursday.
Gretzky played for Canada at the 1998 Games in Nagano and served as the executive director of the men’s hockey team at the next two Winter Olympics. He guided Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
Raonic said he was in L.A. for training when he got connected with Gretzky through a friend of a friend. He said The Great One told him to make sure he savours the Olympic experience.
“I think he’s won pretty much every single thing,” Raonic said. “And the fact that the Olympics means that much I think shows how grand the event is.”
Considering the strong men’s singles field at the Summer Games, it would be a big surprise if Raonic reached the podium. However, he has recorded some impressive wins this year and shown that he belongs on court with the game’s top players.
Raonic had a breakthrough season on the ATP Tour in 2011. The hard-serving 21-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., has won two tournaments this season and holds the No. 25 position in the world rankings.
“I don’t think anyone here wants to draw Raonic in the first round or cross paths with him here,” said longtime Canadian Davis Cup team captain Martin Laurendeau. “He’s that dangerous.”
Organizers unveiled four of the five Olympic tennis draws later in the day at the All England Club. The mixed doubles draw will be released Tuesday.
Raonic will meet world No. 69 Tatsuma Ito of Japan in the first round. The complete match schedule has not been finalized but opening-round play is slated to begin Saturday.
Sixth-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France could be waiting for the winner in the second round. Tsonga opens against No. 40 Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil.
The other Canadian in the draw has a tough opener. Vasek Pospisil of Vancouver will meet fifth-ranked David Ferrer of Spain.
Pospisil will also team with top-ranked doubles player Daniel Nestor of Toronto. The unseeded duo will open against Horia Tecau and Adrian Ungur of Romania.
In women’s singles play, Aleksandra Wozniak of Laval, Que., will play Marina Erakovic of New Zealand. Wozniak will also team with Stephanie Dubois of Laval in women’s doubles against Yaroslava Shvedova and Galina Voskoboeva of Kazakhstan.
Wozniak said it didn’t take long before she got a real sense of the Olympic feeling at the venue.
“The first time I walked into the cafeteria and saw all the athletes there, all people who’ve worked hard to live out their dream and really deserve to be here, it brings out all sorts of emotions —emotions I’ve never quite felt before,” she said. “You feel excitement but at the same time it’s a bizarre feeling, because it’s something you’ve never been through before.”
Dubois added that the atmosphere is different for the Games.
“Players seem to smile more. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a special energy,” she said. “We all represent our own country at the Games, so it’s a question of pride. And you realize it most of all when you go back to the village. It’s not like going back to your hotel room like you usually do.”
Many players are staying in the Olympic Village while some have set up their own accommodation near the venue, since a one-way trip often takes about an hour.
The storied grounds of the All England Club have a much different look now than they did a few weeks ago for Wimbledon. The leafy trees and ivy-covered walls are still noticeable but now they’re accompanied by bright purple Olympic banners at every turn.
The traditional all-white clothing rule is on hold since players will be wearing their national colours. Raonic was sporting a bright red shirt and white shorts during his one-hour practice session under sunny skies.
He worked on his ground strokes and net play and drilled a few cannon-like serves into the fence.
“He knows that his serve — when he’s hot — it’s almost unreturnable,” Laurendeau said. “With experience and more time on the court, playing more matches and getting more close results with the top players — or even beating them frequently — I think he can only keep going up.”
Raonic lost in the second round last month at Wimbledon, dropping a four-set decision to American Sam Querrey.
He also bowed out in the second round a year earlier when he was forced to retire from his match against Gilles Muller of Luxembourg after slipping on the grass as he chased a shot. Raonic later underwent hip surgery and was out of action for several weeks.
He was in good spirits after his afternoon practice session and said he’s enjoying the Olympic experience so far.
“I’m soaking it up but at the same time I don’t think I’m lacking in preparation,” he said.
Raonic — a big hoops fan — said he might try to take in some of the basketball action at the Games. For now though, he’s completely focused on getting ready for his opening match.
“If I can’t get to see any other events, that’s a good thing,” he said. “That’s a good problem to have.”
Laurendeau said tournaments like this can only strengthen Raonic’s foundation as he builds his game for the future. But he added the chances of the young Canadian making some noise here is a distinct possibility.
“When you get a player who’s excited playing something that’s fresh and new, it can be dangerous,” Laurendeau said.