The first question Milos Raonic was asked at this tournament wasn’t about tennis, but about shtick.
What happened to the hair-as-sculpture? And how come you don’t wear that sleeve any more?
“I guess I grew up,” Raonic said.
After a couple of boilerplate questions about the match he’d just won, they wanted to know about Félix Auger-Aliassime. Then on to the topic of injuries, which Raonic could probably co-author a textbook on by now.
This is how it happens. One day you’re the ingenue. Three years later, people want to know about the hair you used to have.
Still only 28, Raonic has entered the aging-gunfighter stage of his career. He can still draw, but he isn’t killing them like he used to.
Those aforementioned injuries have become the most consistent part of his game. Feet, knees, quad, hips, back – like the song says, they’re all connected.
Raonic has spent his 20s tearing, pulling or straining each one in turn. He is the only professional tennis player who does medical research as a side-hustle.
Were he to leave the game today, he’d have several legacies – one of the best servers in history; a Wimbledon finalist; a national sporting trailblazer. But his professional obit is still missing its first line. Right now, it’s “Canadian tennis player.”
Through the ups and many downs, Raonic’s public persona hasn’t changed. Flat as foolscap, occasionally ruminative, just a little bit chippy. Straight up and down, my mother would call him. Like his game.
He won on Wednesday, gradually pile-driving Robin Haase into dust, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6.
When Raonic is at his best, you can almost hear the ker-chunk, ker-chunk, ker-chunk as he plays. Serve after serve until you’ve had enough serve for the day, thanks very much. I’ll skip the serve this set and go straight to losing.
Unlike the Canadian, Haase is a talker out there. To himself. To his box. To the referee. To anyone, really. At one point, he picked something off the court and handed it decorously to a woman sitting in the front row. The crowd burst into applause. The consensus up in press row was that it was a bug. Because it’s hard to believe people are dropping change out there.
With Raonic, there’s nothing fancy. Also, nothing entertaining.
If some of the players out here are artists, Raonic is a bricklayer. He’s not trying to build something pretty. His working baseline is “It remains standing.” Of course, since this is Raonic we’re talking about, there was a medical scare. Near the end of the third and final set he received lengthy attention for a calf injury.
“Just got it treated,” Raonic said, sounding bored. “Didn’t really cause too much trouble after.”
And the prognosis?
“We’ll see how I wake up tomorrow.”
He also had his back taped.
“Back was much better.”
We all think we know how this story goes. Raonic toughs it out until the third or fourth round. Then his foot falls off or something and he needs a foot transplant. See you in Australia. Don’t forget to take out the deluxe medical-insurance package.
But who knows? Maybe it’s different this time around.
Although they have had different paths, what you now get from Raonic is a bit like the vibe you get from Eugenie Bouchard – weariness. The two of them are the oldest 20-somethings in the world. They’ve seen some stuff.
As a result, their deflector shields are always up and always set to maximum power. They don’t offer you anything.
One suspects that Raonic, despite his superior accomplishment, is probably the fourth most interesting Canadian tennis player at the moment. Most top pros have easily definable personalities – Roger Federer is suave; Rafael Nadal is sweet; Serena Williams is hot and cold at the same time, depending on her mood.
What’s Raonic’s personality? That he doesn’t have one. Not in front of cameras, at least.
But he did show a hint of it on Wednesday, once the topic was no longer his calf, his back, his work, his future or his past.
He’s a Toronto guy. He’s a New Balance guy. He may even be a Fun Guy. Is Kawhi coming back?
Raonic got a look when the question was asked. A “do I do this?” look. He started out slow, the usual drone. But he warmed into it.
“I hope he’s leaving L.A. [Clippers and Lakers] with scraps and coming back to Toronto.”
Any special insights?
“I don’t think anybody has any special insights when it comes to him.”
Then a smirk. Possibly of recognition.
Here was a new Raonic, one lubricated for banter.
Former Toronto Blue Jay Jose Bautista – another unknowable sort – was in Raonic’s entourage on Wednesday. Will he be coming to more matches?
“He’s heading home tomorrow. I don’t know if I’ll be changing his ticket for him,” Raonic said, and then another twinkle. “Those baseball contracts are a little bit bigger than tennis contracts.”
Where’s this Raonic been all our lives? This is the guy people could get behind. Someone with a keen appreciation for the ridiculous, which is a prerequisite for surviving fame.
Obviously, that guy is in there. Raonic just doesn’t let him out often.
Perhaps the most telling of his answers was one about the new Serena Williams-Andy Murray supergroup that will assume control of all attention here when it begins touring in a few days. Raonic was asked his thoughts. The easy way road is “I think it’s great. Love those two.”
Raonic didn’t take it. Without saying the actual words, he made it clear he thinks this is a bad idea.
He listed off Williams’s doubles accomplishments. Curiously, he was fully informed on them. He got just one wrong – giving Williams a mixed-doubles French Open championship she doesn’t yet have.
“I think that anything short of them winning, people might feel like they came up short.”
Whose life experience do you imagine he could be channelling there?