Sports  Canadian ace

Milos Raonic is attracting a new national audience to tennis

Milos Raonic is a name that you should learn. Quickly.

Widely touted as the next star of men’s tennis, this twenty year-old has rocketed up the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings over the past two months – from 152nd place to 37th. His impressive early 2011 results – which include a round of 16 Australian Open finish, the San Jose title, and a nail-bitingly close Memphis final against Andy Roddick – have stunned the tennis community worldwide.

The only thing more surprising than Raonic’s meteoric rise: his nationality – this tennis phenom is a Canadian.

Prior to Raonic’s success, the Canadian tennis identity existed in obscurity. Canada’s other “notable” singles players – namely, Frank Dancevic and Peter Polansky – rank lower than the 200 mark and rarely find their way out of qualifying draws, let alone enjoy exciting tournament runs. Indeed, Raonic’s Australian Open result is the best singles performance by a Canadian at a Grand Slam in over a decade. Moreover, his win in San Jose ended Canada’s embarrassing 16-year title drought on the singles tour.

Although Canadian Daniel Nestor dominates the doubles’ circuit, those outside of the profession would be hard-pressed to place him. Nestor’s accomplishments are remarkable: he has earned an Olympic gold-medal, won seven Grand Slams, and owns 72 career titles. Yet his achievements go largely unrecognized. The sad truth is that tennis glorifies singles play; doubles is lost in the sports pages and rarely televised.

It is not surprising, then, that Canada’s chance to watch their Davis Cup team this year owes not to Nestor’s wins, but to Raonic’s. Rogers Sportsnet and Tennis Canada told the Montreal Gazette that the decision to broadcast these matches – for the first time since a one-off broadcast in 2003 – was prompted by Raonic’s spectacular start to the season.

Raonic’s rapid rise to prominence is most often attributed to his serve. This season, he is the ATP tour leader in aces and has hit the fastest serve. Consistently reaching 230 kilometres per hour, Raonic’s serve sounds like a clap of thunder; it causes centre-line judges to duck and dive in the interests of safety, and players to swing at thin air.

His serve’s speed puts Raonic in the company of the game’s best: the existing record for fastest serve belongs to Andy Roddick, at 249.6 km per hour. Unlike Roddick, however, Raonic has just begun his career; when he grows into his six-foot-five frame, his serve will likely become even better.

Besides its blistering speed, Raonic’s serve is also well disguised. While most players vary their toss depending on the type of serve they wish to hit – flat, slice, topspin, or kick – Raonic always tosses the ball in the same way. This strategy forces his opponents to wait just a split-second longer before reacting; they cannot anticipate the spin or location of his serve, so aces add up.

Hopefully, Raonic’s future will be more predictable than his serve. His name – which comes with its own memorable Seinfeld reference – is now frequently coupled with phrases like “can’t miss top-ten,” or “future number one.” A couple of months ago, such praise for a Canadian tennis player seemed unfathomable.

For Canadians, the buzz surrounding Raonic is especially exciting. He has captured the attention of not only tennis fans, but of the whole country. Raonic’s ranking guarantees him entry into all of this year’s Grand Slam events, and he will likely also play on home soil, when the ATP tour comes to Montreal for the Rogers Cup in August. Now Canadians can look forward to seeing one of their own truly compete among the world’s best.

And Raonic agrees. When asked at an Australian Open press conference which top player he would like to beat, Raonic grinned and answered: “All of them.”