Last updated: February 1, 2011 3:39 pm
The Great Canadian Hope shines Down Under
Solid efforts at Australian Open project breakout year for tennis phenom Raonic
SACKVILLE, N.B. (CUP) — What must have seemed like a dream run for Canadian tennis player Milos Raonic came to an end earlier this week at the Australian Open in Melbourne.
After beating France's Michael Llodra and Russia's Mikhail Youzhny — the 22nd and 10th seeds respectively — and becoming the first qualifier to reach the round of 16 at a Grand Slam in 12 years, the Thornhill, Ont. native lost in four sets to seventh-seeded Spaniard David Ferrer.
Had he won, Raonic would have become the first Canadian to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final. Not that Canadian tennis fans are exactly complaining.
Equipped with one of the most powerful serves on tour — ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe called it the strongest he’s ever seen — and a 6’5” frame that lets him cover the court with ease, the 19-year-old Raonic is the most promising player to come out of Canada in years.
His confidence steadily grew throughout the week as his Aussie Open performance showed that he had the ability to compete amongst the tennis elite.
“There's a lot to learn from today and from the whole two-week experience,” said Raonic, who unleashed 15 aces in defeat.
“The biggest thing is I'm not that far away from this level on a week-to-week basis. This is a great motivational thing for the work I've done.”
Of course, anyone in attendance on the opening night of last summer's Rogers Cup tournament in Toronto knows what Raonic is capable of competing against tennis’ best opposition.
On what had already been dubbed “Tennis Canada Night” at the sporting organization's newly revamped Rexall Centre on the campus of Toronto's York University, the Canadian contingent shone bright.
When Raonic and Vernon, B.C.’s Vasek Pospisil stepped on the court for a doubles match, they looked like they were about to be fed to the lions. And, in a way, they were.
The Canadian duo, respectively ranked 217 and 329 at the time, were set to take on the world’s number-one and -two ranked players, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, in a highly anticipated first-round match. It marked the first time that the top-two players in the world had teamed up since Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe in 1976.
Two closely-contested sets and a nail-biting 10–8 tiebreaker later, the Canadian kids had beaten Nadal and Djokovic in what could only be considered a Tennis Canada Night miracle — until now.
For Raonic, that match was the Big Bang of his career — the instant when everything changed and his game rapidly expanded. He moved to Spain in September to train full-time under Tennis Canada coach Galo Blanco, and has shown steady signs of improvement ever since.
At the Aussie Open this week, Raonic gave a global viewing audience a taste of what he is capable of: In his four matches, he recorded over 75 aces.
And his electrifying skills didn’t go unnoticed. As he left the court after his loss to Ferrer, those in attendance Down Under gave the kid from the Great White North a rousing ovation.
It was their way of letting him know that, in their eyes, he was no fluke, and had been accepted as the real deal. Though he entered the tournament an unknown, the Great Canadian Hope with the big serve is surely one of the most intriguing players to watch as 2011 unfolds.