Milos Raonic, readying to serve at the baseline, bounces the tennis ball one-two-three-four-five-six times. Sometimes he bounces it eight, to steady himself. Very occasionally he'll bounce it 10 times, a moment of duress, a moment on which a match pivots.
He then rocks, twice. He brings his racquet in his right hand to the bright green ball in his left, rocking forth to waist height, pulling back, and then he rocks forth again, upward to the height of his shoulders, before he corks back – pausing ever so briefly at the bottom of the rotation to make the toss – and then unfurls what has been hewed and honed into one of the deadliest serves in tennis history.
Daniel Nestor remembers standing across the court from Raonic, seven years ago, Raonic at the age of 16 and Nestor 34. Nestor, when he was coming up, had a booming serve, all the nastier from the racquet of a leftie, all deceptive spins and high bounces. Nestor, when he was coming up, faced the likes of Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic, men with cannons for serves. Seven years ago, Nestor had never seen anything like this.
"Even though," Nestor recalled this week, "the ball's not going in all the time, still, when it does go in: 'Oh my god. If this guy puts it all together, he's going to be unstoppable.'"
Canada has never had a male tennis player as accomplished in singles as 23-year-old Raonic. A year ago, in Montreal, he broke through to the global elite, when he reached the final of the Rogers Cup, where he quickly lost to Rafael Nadal. Then, last month, one step further, the semi-finals of Wimbledon, where he lost to Roger Federer in straight sets.
The loss seared Raonic. What should have been a buoying milestone burned. He stewed over what went wrong. He plotted what he wanted to remedy. He took time off, hung out with friends in New York, watched Game of Thrones and House of Cards on Netflix. He gave himself "some air to breathe." Then it was back to the gym, to ready for these weeks on which his future could trampoline.
Raonic stands No. 7 in the world. Everyone knows Novak Djokovic and Nadal are locked at No. 1 and 2. But thereafter, Raonic sees a big opening. He feels he can play much better than he did against Federer, and knows the hard courts of Toronto and the U.S. Open suit his game best. He adds it up. He feels a Grand Slam title, his first, near his grasp.
This week in Washington, the quest began, imperfect, mechanical, promising. On Thursday night, he defeated former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt 7-6 (1), 7-6 (3). Neither man ceded a service game but when it mattered, in the tiebreak, Raonic dominated. Six bounces. On Friday afternoon, he propelled himself past American Steve Johnson, No. 68 ranked, to the semi-finals on Saturday.
Raonic's game in the past 1 1/2 years has obviously improved, the quickness of his movement especially. He attacks the net, but his volleys are erratic. Back at the service line, he no longer simply hits as hard as physically possible. Whereas before he'd blast out some serves of 230 kilometres an hour, in Washington he worked in the 215 range. And his crafty use of off-speed serves, as slow as 180 – like a baseball hurler's changeup – befuddles opponents.
He's not fun to play against. And, most of all, he knows he now stokes worry in even the best across the court. It's something he's marshalled more recently, under the guidance of Ivan Ljubicic, the No. 3 player in 2006, who was hired as Raonic's coach 14 months ago.
"I've always felt it – but I felt, when I came up against the top guys, they didn't feel it as much," said Raonic in an interview, sitting outside the players' lounge on Monday afternoon. "Now I understand I am able to put a sight of fear in the top guys' eyes."
He keeps his mind away from thoughts of reaching No. 1 and No. 2. "For me, right now," said Raonic, "the goal is six, five, four, three. Those goals go one at a time."
The tools are there, Nestor said.
"I wouldn't necessarily say he's the best tennis player out there, but he has tremendous weapons," Nestor said. "His serve is probably the best of all time. He has a good forehand. And he has a great head on his shoulders."
Thursday night, a principal builder of modern tennis watched from his box as Raonic handled Hewitt. In the 1960s, the prehistory era of tennis as we know it, Donald Dell was a top American player. Dell, a lawyer by training, in 1972 co-founded the Association of Tennis Professionals. Two years earlier, he started the agency ProServ, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith the first clients, and grew its roster well beyond tennis to include names such as Michael Jordan.
Dell hesitates to rank Raonic's serve.
"Everybody's different in different eras," said Dell, who in 1968 founded what's now called the Citi Open. "Raonic is an awfully good server. But go back and pick out the great returners. Agassi. Federer's a good server, but he's a great receiver."
Raonic, said Dell, needs to get quicker. On volleying, he's "pretty good" but needs to become more comfortable.
On the court in Washington, it was clear – Raonic set up points with an off-speed serve, attacked the net, but some volleys would hit the net, unforced error. On service returns, he was so-so and struggled to break opponents.
"This is a natural thing he has to do," said Dell of the still-titanic climb to No. 1. "And it's not going to be so easy."