After two long years, Raonic is the good news story Canadian tennis needs
It's been a long road for Canadian tennis player Milos Raonic. But after a milestone victory in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon on Wednesday, he could be the leader back into the golden era, writes Cathal Kelly
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When Milos Raonic made his first Wimbledon semi-final in 2014, he was overshadowed in the effort by Eugenie Bouchard's parallel emergence.
Bouchard made the women's final. Raonic was hammered in his semi, a straight-sets loss to Roger Federer. He left the tournament more admired than he had been, but no longer the darling. That was Bouchard's spot.
In the two years since, Bouchard has fallen back to the middle of the pack, while Raonic has struggled with a series of nagging injuries. During this time, the golden era of Canadian tennis entered a small hiatus.
Led by Raonic, it's coming out of it in London this week.
The first hurdle for a top men's player in any major draw is 'Where's Djokovic?' Raonic was spared an encounter with the overwhelming World No. 1 by American journeyman Sam Querrey's upset win in Round 3.
On Wednesday, in the spot he would have faced the Serb under typical circumstances, Raonic instead got an emotionally depleted Querrey in the quarterfinals. The two men are similar players – as powerful and plodding as siege machines. Raonic was far and away the sharper. He won 6-4, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.
The tennis was largely dreary, if only because Raonic was so metronomic. You were never in doubt of the result, which is a new feel for the Canadian at this point in a slam.
Querrey was complimentary in defeat, saying he thought he'd played well, but that Raonic was the better man. Then he loosed his finest backhand of the day, in the form of a compliment.
"The tough part in playing a guy like [Raonic] or John Isner or Kevin Anderson, but especially Milos today, [is] you don't get in a rhythm," Querrey said. "You go games on his serve where you might get one return in play."
At this point in his career – 25 years old and nearly eight years a pro – Raonic would not like to be thought of as analogous to Isner or Anderson. Both of them are towering, uncultured players with enormous serves and little else to their game. Neither has ever gotten further than the quarters of a major tournament.
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Raonic, the world No. 7, aspires to more. Now he has another one of those once– or twice-in-a-season chances to prove it.
His semi-final opponent on Friday will be Federer, the man who humbled him in the same spot two years ago. The ageing Swiss is an artist in an extended period of late-career reinvention. He no longer has the agility to paint the court. He has to cover it in rough strokes.
Playing at the same time on Wednesday as Raonic, Federer probably should have lost to another of those court giants, Croatia's Marin Cilic. Federer dropped the first two sets decisively. He began tacking course in the middle of the third. He broke Cilic's spirit during a lengthy tie-break in the fourth. Then he pummelled him in the fifth.
Federer isn't known for his comebacks, since he so rarely had to bother. But he is proving at age 34 that the self-belief that made him the greatest player of all time remains. Other professionals think they can win. Federer still knows it.
Despite the very different circumstances in where they stand in the history of tennis, both Federer and Raonic enter Friday's match at crucial turning points.
Federer hasn't taken a major in four years; he's won only two over the last seven years. Arguably, no men's player has ever been more graceful in decline, but it can still be difficult to watch him diminish.
At a guess, he has perhaps one last slam victory left in him. There is no court on which he stands a better chance of getting it than the main stage in London's SW9. This could very well be his last chance.
Meanwhile, if Raonic is to begin asserting himself as one of the best in the game, rather than just an aspirant, this is his moment. Djokovic is out of the picture. Federer – still suffering from back issues – is vulnerable. If he can get as far as a final, anything's possible.
The closest comparable to Raonic in terms of style and career arc might be Cilic. The Croatian won his first and only slam in Flushing Meadows in 2014. He was also 25 at the time.
Having climbed this far, Raonic will hit a sheer cliff on Friday. Federer will have a huge advantage in crowd support. Raonic is forced into playing the part of the villain – ruining a late-in-the-day Cinderella story for the game's most admired player.
Raonic has beaten Federer only twice in 11 encounters, though one of those victories came in their last meeting – January's final on hardcourt in Brisbane. Raonic handily won that match, 6-4, 6-4.
So he knows it can be done. He is playing at the highest level in his career. For the first time in a while, he is fully fit. It won't get any better than this.
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"I came here with a simple goal for this tournament," Raonic said Wednesday.
To win the tournament?
We've waited two years for the good news story about Canadian tennis to turn into an unqualified national celebration. Raonic now has the advantage of certainty when it comes to his window.
If it all turns out as he hopes, he's four days from establishing himself as one of the few names in Canadian sports that will ring out long after he's gone.