'It's a good shot, but it won't be good enough when you play Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi or Roger Federer."
It seems like a peculiar thing to say to a kid - if not a little soul-crushing - but tennis coach Casey Curtis used to say the phrase matter-of-factly and look into the humbled face of 11-year-old Milos Raonic for a reaction.
"I would say it to him all the time as a young kid because he was special, and for a while he would just smile at me like, 'yeah, right,'" Curtis said. "But when he stopped smiling at the suggestion of playing guys like that and started believing he was on course to actually do it, that's when I knew he had what it takes."
The coach from the Blackmore Tennis Club in Richmond Hill, Ont., was right about the young star from Thornhill, Ont., whom he coached from ages eight through 17.
Raonic, now 20, put his stamp on the tennis world this past week with a magical run at the Australian Open.
Raonic toppled 10th seed Mikhail Youzhny and 22nd seed Michael Llodra before losing steam in the fourth round and losing to seventh seed David Ferrer. Raonic fell just shy of becoming the first Canadian man to reach the quarter-finals at a Grand Slam event.
Through three rounds, he was the tournament's most powerful server, hitting 230 kilometres an hour. He will boost his ranking from No. 152 in the world to inside the top 100 by the time the rankings come out on Jan. 31. He leaves Melbourne with a cheque for $93,000 and the promise of becoming the best Canadian tennis player ever.
Raonic was born in Podgorica, Montenegro, and moved to Canada with his family at three. When he was eight, he marched into Blackmore Tennis Club with his dad, asking for some group training.
Curtis could tell the youngster wasn't nearly strong enough to train with the kids he was coaching. That didn't deter Raonic. The skinny kid and his dad said they would practise with a ball machine in the off hours, late at night and then right back at it excruciatingly early the next morning, when the courts were quiet and the rates were cheap.
In just a few months, he was good enough to join the other kids.
"He was by far the youngest in the crowd, but really likeable, and the other kids adopted him as a little brother right away," Curtis said. "He was smart and well spoken. He fit right in."
While Raonic is 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds today, he didn't shoot up until he was a teen and didn't fill in until just a few years ago, Curtis said. But that didn't keep him from winning.
"He had turned into a real star and was winning tournaments all the time, so I was spending a lot of time working on his game with him, and he would say, 'You know coach, you can go watch one of the other players, you don't have to spend so much time watching me play,'" Curtis recalled. "I always thought that was so thoughtful and mature for a young teen to say that when every kid wanted the attention of his coach."
But Raonic had a tough time controlling his emotions on the court. Cursing, banging his racquet, the works.
"I don't know the word to describe Milos on the court back then," Curtis said, laughing. "He was quite explosive to put it politely. I remember a match once in Newmarket [Ontario]where he had an outburst after every mistake he made. But he still won the match."
Several U.S. colleges were calling. He weighed it heavily, nearly opted for a scholarship at the University of Virginia. But ultimately, a pro career was for him. So at 17 he went to train at Canada's high-performance centre in Montreal. And last summer it was off to Spain to train with coach Galo Blanco and the best Spanish players. He has learned composure on the court. And it doesn't hurt the big players to practise against that big serve.
Indeed, world No. 1 Rafael Nadal praised Raonic after the two met in a tournament last October, predicting success for the Canadian.
"Earning a level of respect makes things a lot easier when it comes to training, players wanting to practise with you, knowing that you have the level," Raonic said. "It opens doors for sure. It's nice to see that all the hours and all the years put together are paying off and I'm happy other people are seeing it."