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Milos Raonic of Canada plays a forehand against Dennis Novak at Wimbledon on July 5Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Court 16 at Wimbledon lies in the shadows of the championships’ famed Centre Court, and it’s usually reserved for the game’s lesser lights. It’s not where you’d expect to find a former Wimbledon finalist and one-time world No. 3 duking it out in front of a few hundred spectators and the odd passerby who cared to stop and watch.

But there was Milos Raonic on Wednesday, out on Court 16 for his first-round match against Austrian Dennis Novak, ranked 159th in the world. It was the start of an improbable comeback for the Canadian – whose ranking has plummeted to 849 – after a two-year absence from Wimbledon, the scene of some of his biggest triumphs.

The last time Raonic set foot in the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club he spent most of his time on the tournament’s show courts putting the fear of God into opponents with a blazing serve that once topped 236 kilometres an hour, still among the tournament’s fastest. He made it to the semi-finals in 2014, the final in 2016 and the quarter-finals twice after that.

A damaged Achilles tendon shut him down in 2021 and he limped away from the sport vowing never to return. He cut himself off from the game and refused to watch matches on television or talk about tennis with his family, his friends, or his agent.

Life moved in a different direction. He married his long-time partner, Camille Ringoir, in April, 2022, and they shuttled between the Bahamas, New York and the California coast; as far away as possible from the pressure and grind of being a professional athlete.

“I stayed away from Toronto, I think for a little while, because the question always was; what are you doing now? How is it? I just didn’t even want to be asked those questions,” he said Wednesday. “I realized that life after tennis will be okay.”

It was only by chance during a stay in the Bahamas last year that he felt the urge to pick up a racquet again. He passed a tennis court every day on his way to the gym. Finally, he stopped and thought about hitting a ball or two, but even warming up felt painful.

Then the longing set in. Tennis “would be on TV sometimes when I’d be in the gym. It was kind of always around and I kind of wanted to give it another go,” he said.

He refused to rush in. Being more grounded, and married, helped bring some perspective to his decision to launch a comeback. “When I wanted to play again, it wasn’t out of desperation or anxiousness. It was more out of, ‘Would it be something I’d enjoy and have fun with?’” he said. “I kind of decided that I wanted to get ready to get back when the timing was right. Not because I felt like, hey, I need to make Wimbledon, or I need to make it for the U.S. Open.”

He started training in earnest earlier this year and faced a string of setbacks. The return seemed out of reach until he entered a Wimbledon tune-up event in the Netherlands in June. He defeated Miomir Kecmanovic, a top-50 player, with relative ease: 6-3, 6-4. But he had to drop out of his next match because of a sore shoulder.

That put his return to Wimbledon in question. Could he handle multiple rounds of five-set matches?

His initial challenge in London was the weather. Rain delayed his first-round match against Novak by a full day. They had to wait another 90 minutes before the start of play on Wednesday and then faced two rain delays in the opening set. Flashes of 2011 went through his mind, when he slipped and ended up requiring hip surgery.

Raonic was so out of sorts that he didn’t know what to do during the stoppages in play. “Last time I dealt with a rain delay has been a very long time ago,” he said. “So, all these kinds of things you feel out of routine. You’re kind of always questioning yourself, like, what did I used to do when these things would happen before?”

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He passed some of the time playing an animal trivia game with fellow Canadian Denis Shapovalov, whose match was also suspended. “I learned that a turtle can be breathe through its butt,” Raonic said.

By the time play resumed for good, Raonic had found some of his old magic.

He unleashed his trademark serve on Novak, 29, and piled up 28 aces including one to finish the match. After losing the first set in a tiebreaker, Raonic powered through the next three sets and picked up steam as Novak faded. The final score read 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-1.

There were miscues, missed chances and plenty of mistakes, including 37 unforced errors. But for only his second match in two years, Raonic left the court happy. “I think I did a lot of things well,” he said.

The one thing he regretted was not enjoying the moment. “I think you just get caught up with the whole process of competing and trying to find a way to win and that passes by really quickly,” he said. “You know, it’s 5-1, serving for [the match], and you don’t really get to enjoy the match, you’re just competing.”

Raonic is only 32 years old – four years younger than Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic – but it seems like he has been at the forefront of Canadian tennis for eons. His breakthrough year came more than a decade ago in 2011 when he was named ATP World Tour Newcomer of the Year. He was the first Canadian male to break into the top 10, he’s won eight ATP Tour titles and he’s advanced to 10 Grand Slam quarter-finals, two semi-finals and one final.

He isn’t thinking much beyond his next match on Thursday. For now, his summer plans include the National Bank Open in Toronto and the U.S. Open, and not much more. “I just played one match,” he said. “No reason to look much further.”

Sitting court side on Wednesday, Sean Brown and his twin brother Cole cheered every point Raonic won. They’ve followed Raonic’s career for years and they came from Toronto when they heard he’d be at Wimbledon.

“It was awesome,” said Sean, a 24-year-old lawyer. “It seemed like the same old Milos that I’m used to. It’s good to see.”

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