Is Milos Raonic the Future of Tennis?

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Milos Raonic — the 25-year-old Canadian powerhouse — is in the midst of his best season ever, reaching the final at Wimbledon and the semis at the Australian Open, both personal bests. He is heading to the U.S. Open ranked sixth overall, armed with an insatiable hunger and what many say is the best serve in the history of the game. For years, people have been watching the arms race between Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic, but they, in turn, kept one eye on Raonic. “He’s tough-minded, and dedicated, and serious,” John McEnroe told Men’s Journal in 2014. “And he’s done everything he possibly can to come on stronger and better.”

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For a decade and change, four players dominated tennis — Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and Andy Murray. Each year, they battle like titans for titles, scattering the ambitions of younger players in their wake. But a fresh generation of challengers is now fighting into the top of the rankings. Among the most gifted are Raonic, Japan’s 26-year-old Kei Nishikori, Bulgaria’s 25-year-old Grigor Dimitrov, and Austria’s 22-year-old Dominic Thiem. Each has his own style (see “The Rising Stars”, below), but Raonic rattles the most nerves. In 2011, after reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open, he rose from No. 152 in the world to No. 37 in just one month. He took both Nadal and Federer the full three sets in matches in 2013. In March of 2014, he beat Murray in a fourth-round upset at Indian Wells, in California. Two months later, after a match with Djokovic at the Rome Masters, the then-No. 2-ranked Serbian admitted he struggled with Raonic’s serve. “I can’t recall the last time I was feeling so helpless returning,” Djokovic said after the match, “Even his second serve.” Three weeks later, at the French Open, Raonic held his own under Djokovic’s relentless backhand, falling two-and-a-half hours later — but not before becoming the first Canadian male to make a Grand Slam quarterfinal in Open-era history.

If Raonic feels the pressure, it’s not evident as he sprawls out in an upstairs booth at the Spotted Pig, a West Village haunt of New York City’s actors, rappers, media moguls, art dealers, and fashion photographers. “I should eat more pork,” says Raonic, as his burger without bun, plus salad, arrives at the table. “Apparently something about beef’s not great for me, but pork is,” he says. At least he skipped the bun. “I can’t have gluten either,” he adds. In 2014, he saw a sports nutritionist (the kind that suggested Djokovic shift to a gluten-free diet just before he became No. 1 in the world), had his blood work done, and was given a strict diet. “My body doesn’t respond optimally to some foods,” he says. So no salmon, tuna, mandarins, or nuts — “other than macadamia and Brazil nuts,” he says. A diet full of veggies and white meats is a big change for Raonic, who hates trying new foods. (It took one friend weeks to convince him to try lobster. “Now, I love it.”)

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It's here in New York City that Raonic says he feels most at home (aside from actually visiting his parents in Toronto). When he can manage it — a few times a year — he'll squeeze in week-long trips to Manhattan, sandwiched between 12-hour training days in Monte Carlo, and monthly tournaments around the world. He'll couch surf with friends in New York City, visit art galleries (studying up for future purchases); drink wine (up to three glasses a day with the new diet), and indulge in his other sport passion, basketball, on the city's courts. But such luxuries happen when it's not Grand Slam season (from the French to the U.S. Open) when he's working on his returns, volleys, fitness and, of course, his serve.

Raonic is built to serve. He is six-foot-five, crested by a boyish face with fierce brown eyes. He has tree trunks for legs and his shoulder blades are like slabs of steer tendon. “He’s so tall it’s like he’s serving from the fourth floor,” says Carole Bouchard, the tennis reporter for L’Equipe in France, “He can serve a ball that will bounce off your head.” Even his hair evokes power and precision: shellacked and black, parted severely on the side with a tidal swoop above his forehead. It seems likely he could set the record for fastest serve — Raonic’s fastest has clocked in at 155 mph). McEnroe ranks Raonic behind three all-time serving greats — Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, and Goran Ivanisevic — and in league with John Isner (“when he’s on”) and Ivo Karlovic. “He’s not as big as Isner and Karlovic,” said McEnroe, “but he moves around the court better than those guys.”

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Still, Raonic has some work to do if he wants to crack the top five. “Raonic's biggest challenge to win a Slam is that, aside from his serve, the rest of his game is not on the same level as the top contenders for Slams,” said former American pro James Blake in 2014. “His serve equalizes much of that disparity, but it's counting on one facet of the game.”

Nearly 3 years ago, he hired Ivan Ljubičić, the former pro who ranked third in the world in 2006, to fix that. “His tennis is changing, and he has a lot of things to put together,” Ljubičić admitted in 2014. “He needs to get to know himself, and probably the biggest challenge to that is coping with the pressure.”

It’s easy to forget, when looking at a workhorse like Raonic, that he is basically still just a newly minted adult and pro tennis player who has been in the top 30 as long as he's been of legal age. Although, this particular newly minted adult lives in Monte Carlo, travels the planet with three Tumis — one just for his footwear — three iPhones, and a $10,000 sponsor-gifted Rolex of two-tone gold. “I was going to pick an all gold one,” he says, “but people say it looks old.”

If you’re a young tennis star who has earned more than $12 million in career prize money, and you lived in Monaco, you’d buy a pricey sports car. But then, of course, you are not Milos Raonic. This is a guy who studies his percentage of second-serve points (He fired 21 aces against Djokovic in Paris in 2014, but won just 29 percent of his second serves.), who was born into a hard-working engineering family (His father is in nuclear energy; his mother in banking software.), and whose every move (on and off the court) is dictated by a fierce logic.

“I would always be thinking, ‘Why do I have this sports car?” says Raonic. “I’ll enjoy it for the first ride, but then I have to find someone to drive it once a week when I’m traveling because you have to drive these cars to keep them up. It’s just so, so illogical.” Instead, he plans to buy a Smart Car.

Which is what you’d expect from the immigrant son of frugal overachievers. Raonic’s parents left their native Montenegro for Canada when he was three, along with his older sister and brother, just as it was breaking away from the former Republic of Yugoslavia. They settled in the suburbs of Thornhill, on Toronto’s north border. “They went to work, did what they were expected to do, really pushed themselves,” says Raonic.

When Raonic was a kid, he too was naturally driven. “I was always doing something. I had too much energy as a kid,” he says. Once, 12-year-old kids near his townhouse were playing street hockey and he, eight-years-old, wanted in. So his father bought him in-line skates, and within a few days of studying moves from videos and a book, and practicing before school and after dinner, he came barreling onto the street with violent determination. In a scene right out of a Spielberg movie, the immigrant kid killed it on the blacktop and became a neighborhood hero — although he didn’t know when to stop. In one game, he fell so hard his knee needed stitches. But he played for three more hours, not wanting his father to send him to the doctor. “I have scars from it,” he says.

“I only cared about tennis,” says Milos, who took up the sport at age 8, and would practice in the early morning hours while his friends were still in bed.

“For him that was big thing, being accepted by the older kids,” his mother, Vesna, says. “We noticed even, at that age, his determination and drive to achieve — to do whatever he wants in life. He puts in a lot of work and does not mind the effort.”

When a flyer for a local tennis camp appeared in the mail, he took that up, too. Court rates were expensive, so he practiced during cheap morning and night hours when other kids were just waking up or going to bed. He’d spend two straight hours on the ball launcher, hitting 100 mile-per-hour balls, at 90 balls per minute, never once stopping for a break. “My dad would be like, ‘Don’t you need to rest?’ and I’d be like, ‘No, there are more balls coming out of the machine.’”

By high school, he had convinced the principal to let him jam a full day’s work into mornings (even skipping lunch to take classes while other kids were eating and socializing) so he could leave early for afternoon practice. He didn’t care about parties, proms, after-school hangouts. “No matter what I do, it’s ‘Go in there. Get the job done. Be efficient,’” he says. “Not pass notes around in class. It’s the same thing with my tennis. No coaches are allowed on their cell phones at practice. I get angry if coaches look at their cell phones on the court.”

Such mechanical determination, however, can bewilder fans. “It’s sometimes hard for fans to get behind him because they don’t know much about him,” said McEnroe. “They know he has this incredible serve, but how much does this guy want it? They want to see passion like with Nadal or Djokovic. Fans know who they are. They are wearing their hearts on their sleeves. It’s part of the work Milos needs to do.”

In 2008, at age 17, three weeks from entering the University of Virginia on a scholarship, Raonic presented his parents with a Plan B. His rankings had been hovering around 900 for most of the year, and he wanted to go pro instead of going to college. “To us, academics are the most important thing,” says his mother. But they believed in his determination, so they agreed — on two conditions: “We said, ‘We will continue to work and support you for two years, and if you are not in the Top 100 by then, you go back to school, no discussion,’” says his mother. “‘Also, you will go to online university and study while you are turning pro.’”

Raonic went into 2009 ranked No. 507, and it wasn’t until Melbourne in 2011 — almost exactly two years later — that his fuse truly lit, when he made a hard-charging run into the fourth round, taking out No. 10 Mikhail Youzhny before being stopped by No. 7 David Ferrer after winning the first set. But he had burst into the Top 100 (ranked 94), just as he told his parents he would. “He called home from Australia and said, ‘I am sending my schoolbooks home,” says Vesna Raonic. That same year he became the first player born in the 1990s to win an ATP World Tour singles title. And by 2013, he was the top Canadian player and its youngest ever in the top 20.

But it wasn’t until March of 2014, when he beat Murray at Indian Wells, that commentators put Raonic and the words ‘Grand Slam’ in the same story. The celebration didn’t last long. That same month, he fell to Nadal in Miami. “I wish I had had more experience on how I should have dealt with him,” says Raonic. At the beginning of the third set, Nadal began playing short, like he does when he’s under pressure. “When you have the opportunity to step up, you have to take it from him,” says Raonic. “I had two great chances to step up, but I didn’t.” Ljubičić chalked it up to experience. “It’s understanding these guys and how they react,” he says. “He’s in a rush. He just wants to finish the point rather than being a little more patient.” That also goes for “not losing energy off the court, or in the locker room, things that frustrate him that are not related to tennis,” said Ljubičić. “This all goes to getting to know himself better.”

In 2014, Raonic bought a two-bedroom, 1800-square foot condo with an outdoor deck, in a historic skyscraper — the former home of Imperial Oil — in downtown Toronto. He oversaw the remodeling himself. While he is new to the world of art and culture — up to this point, it’s been all tennis — he’s passionate about buying his own art and has gotten into contemporary art — Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei. But he is thinking it through with typical force, telling his decorator he wants to curate it all himself. “Somebody comes over, I want to be able to tell them about a piece,” he says. “I might not know anything about any other piece in the world, but I’ll know about that piece.”

Ambition is everything to Raonic, and as such makes the taste of defeat so much more potent than the taste of winning. “I hate to lose," he says. "I hate to lose more than I like to win. It’s weird, people always say that it makes it seem like I don’t enjoy anything." There are times when he’s been so frustrated with his game that he’s flown halfway around the world — once from Rome to Toronto — just to get away for a few days. When he was struggling at the French Open in 2013, he again wanted to go home to his parents. But his mother calmed him down over Skype and convinced him to go instead to Monte Carlo by train and take it easy. “I get very pissed off and disappointed,” says Raonic. “It’s a process, and all I’m asking is….” He trails off and looks around the crowded streets. “I can be hard on myself,” he says. “But I’m getting better every day. And I believe if I do so, I will eventually get to where I want to be. So I have to be patient. My coach is always telling me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going well, it’s going well.’”

This story, which first ran in June 2014, has been updated. 

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