A 230 KPH Shot in the Arm
Sometime a win is just a win. Sometimes it's more.
In the case of Milos Raonic's victory Sunday in San Jose, it's only the biggest shot in the arm for Canadian tennis in at least 15 years. Proclaimed by Patrick McEnroe at the Australian Open last month as "maybe the next big thing in men's tennis," Raonic's blistering serve carried him past Fernando Verdasco of Spain and to his first ATP victory.
Greg Rusedski was the last Canadian to win a tournament, and soon after he cashed in his talent for British citizenship, so it's hard to count much of what Rusedski did as anything that contributed to Canadian tennis.
Raonic may indeed be the real deal. Winning any event in men's pro tennis today is nothing to sneeze at, given the remarkable depth of the men's game in the modern era, the raw physical nature of the sport these days and the heavy travel demands. Those not in the top 20 don't get all the perqs the top players get, from massage therapists to preferred hotels to convenient scheduling, so winning San Jose was an enormous achievement for the Thornhill-raised Raonic.
Canadian tennis has been waiting a long time for someone like this. Young and articulate with loads of promise, Raonic's cannon-like serve is the stuff of which tennis stars are made. The most popular American player in the post-Agassi, post-Sampras era has been Andy Roddick, who built his game almost totally around his spectacular serve, only adding other elements later.
There are big servers on the tour who don't have much more than that - 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic comes to mind - but it would appear Raonic has other compelling elements to his game, including a big forehand that allows him to dictate play and an ability and willingness to come in and play at the net.
The great news is that he's given the country a tennis player to watch, at least for this year. Wimbledon is made for those who can serve and volley, so he'll be worth watching there in June.
At the same time, it's important to put Raonic's Silicon Valley triumph in some perspective so as not to exaggerate it.
This may be the most diluted portion of the men's tennis season, and last week there were no fewer than three ATP tour events, including San Jose, one in Rotterdam and another in Brazil. The world's top three players - Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Australian Open champ Novak Djokovic - played in none of them. The San Jose tourney featured only one top 10 player - Fernando Verdasco, beaten by Raonic in the final - and three players currently ranked in the top 20. The fourth-seeded player was Xavier Malisse, currently ranked 45th in the world.
Robin Soderling, the world's No. 4 player, won the Rotterdam tournament, one that had much deeper draw than San Jose and is the bigger event of the two. Nicolas Almagro won on clay in Brazil as the talent on the tour was spread thinly across the globe.
This week, there are three more events in Marseile, Memphis and Buenos Aires. Not only are there too many tour events - players have been complaining about this for years - but too often overlapping events dilute the product.
None of this should take away from Raonic's win. Capturing this tournament was the next logical step in a career that appears to be bursting with promise, and beating Malisse, Verdasco and James Blake demonstrated he could not only defeat experienced tour veterans, but ones with very different kinds of games.
Winning a tournament like this allows him to pile up some points, improve his seeding at future events and continue his drive towards the top 20.
The next step? Following up San Jose with another strong effort in Memphis, a tournament that ranks below Masters events like the Rogers Cup but above the San Jose tourney. What separates the top players from the rest is their ability to put together consistent results That's Raonic's next challenge.
But a win is a win. And this was no ordinary win.