There’s always a first, and when it comes to Canadian tennis, Milos Raonic is it.
He was the first Canadian singles player to break into the ATP World Tour top 40, and then the top 20 and then the top 10.
Earlier this year at the French Open, he became the first Canadian man to make the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. At Wimbledon, he became the first to make a semifinal.
But as far as ambitions go, Raonic’s go well beyond the maple leaf.
Now, as the No. 5 seed and the winner of this summer’s Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series, Raonic is safely into the third round of the U.S. Open and looking to add a couple more firsts to his resume: He wants to become not only the first Canadian, but the first man from any country born in the 1990s to win a Grand Slam title in singles.
“Yes,” he said without hesitation when asked I asked him at the Citi Open this summer whether he really thought he could be the last man standing in New York. “I feel that now more than ever.”
Maybe we should listen to him. After all, the 6’5” 23-year-old has a world-class serve and a much-improved ground game under the tutelage of his dual coaches Ivan Ljubicic and Richard Piatti. He’s a threat to anyone on the tennis court.
“Milos is playing the tennis of his life,” Novak Djokovic said before the two faced off at the French Open this year, per ASAP Sports. “He has one of the best serves in the world. Very powerful, very precise. When he serves that well, there is not much you can do.”
"Raonic is a big, strong guy who wins with brute force," former pro and Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob told Greg Garber of ESPN. "The commitment to excellence is there."
On a U.S. Open conf call this aft, John McEnroe said Milos Raonic was 'obviously the guy' most ready to step into the top tier.— Scott Stinson (@scott_stinson) August 20, 2014
Indeed, the young Canadian possesses three qualities in common with top athletes across the board: a great work ethic, ambition and confidence to spare.
There’s nothing ambivalent or casual about Raonic. Every hair is perfectly in place, every move is thought out.
He likes to have control on the court, dictating points with his dominant first strike and unrelenting power, and he likes to have that same control in conversations. He pauses in press conferences if he doesn’t know the answer right away, refusing to let himself be caught off guard.
He considers questions carefully and he answers in definitive statements. Nothing that comes out of his mouth is an accident. The son of two engineers, he’s thoughtful, purposeful and exact.
Unlike many young stars, there’s no sense of a false bravado. His self-confidence is not an act.
Sitting down with him just a weeks after his loss to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon semis, I asked him when he first realized he was good at tennis.
“That you’re going to have to ask my parents,” he said. “Because I always thought I was good.”
He’s a bit clearer about when his goals became so lofty. As a kid just starting out in tennis, he wanted to be the best. “It’s that blind childish ambition,” he said, recalling watching Pete Sampras win Wimbledon. “He was No. 1 in the world, so I wanted to be like him. But I never really understood what that meant.”
Raonic was born in Montenegro but moved to Canada when he was three years old. When he was eight and living in Toronto, he was introduced to tennis in a spring-break camp, and soon after his father took him to meet with Casey Curtis, one of the top tennis instructors in the nation. At the time, Raonic considered tennis just one of his many sporting interests, and he was hoping to get into a class and play a couple of times a week. That quickly changed.
“[Curtis] took a look at me and he told me, ‘You could be very good, you should play five or six times a week.’”
Raonic took him seriously, as he’s wont to do, and his father started taking him to practice on the ball machine regularly. Since it was cheaper to practice during the off hours, they would practice from six to eight in the morning and nine to 11 at night. After just six months, Raonic was good enough to join the class with the older kids and Curtis ended up being his coach until he was 17 years old.
"Persistence can change failure into extraordinary achievement" - Matt Biondi— Milos Raonic (@milosraonic) April 5, 2014
When asked where his drive comes from, he tips his hat to his parents. “I could not play tennis if I wasn’t an honors student,” he said. “There was always a high expectation. My parents always wanted me and my brother and sister to push ourselves. I think that instilled it in me.”
When Raonic was 17 years old, after a successful but not spectacular junior tennis career, he was very close to going to college on a tennis scholarship. Instead, he convinced his parents to let him turn pro, under one condition: He had to study on the side, and if he wasn’t in the top 100 in two years, he had to go back to school.
“When I was starting out on tour, my goal was to be a consistent top-50 player, so my goals have changed,” he said. “Now it’s about becoming the best player in the world.”
Raonic did not experience instant success, and at the beginning of 2011 with the two-year deadline running on fumes, he was still ranked No. 156. But in late 2010 he had joined forces with former Spanish pro Galo Blanco and moved his base to Barcelona, Spain, where the best players in the world were training.
The improvements were immediate, and so were the results. In the first two months of the year, Raonic qualified for the Australian Open and made the Round of 16, won his first ATP title in San Jose, California and advanced to the final in Memphis, Tennessee, nearly beating Andy Roddick in a third set. Just like that, he was ranked No. 37 and was officially considered the Next Big Thing in tennis.
“I look for him to have a bright future if he goes about it the right way and works the right way, His future is in his hands," Jimmy Connors told The Star in 2011. "No one should be satisfied with their success no matter how good they are."
Satisfied is a word that's certainly not in Raonic's vocabulary. After a couple of years floating around the top 20, he took another big step in 2013, splitting with Blanco and joining forces with Ljubicic and, eventually, Ljubicic's long-time coach Piatti. Together, the duo has ushered the Canadian into the next phase of his career.
“They’ve most of all helped me with understanding,” he said. “Understanding how I need to deal with big situations, how I need to deal with pressures, how I need to deal with important opponents. Understanding what my tennis is, and how I need to bring my tennis each time.”
The partnership has already helped every aspect of Raonic's game, and the best in the game—including Djokovic—are starting to take notice.
I think he improved a lot from the baseline now. With his backhand he's hitting down the line, he's very aggressive, which he should be, of course, for somebody of his height and his build. You know, he's powerful and he uses that serve. His forehand is also very good from back of the court.
So there is an evident improvement in his game and he feels more confident on the court. You can feel that.
Nowhere were his improvements more apparent than at Wimbledon this year. On a surface where he had always struggled, Raonic methodically and powerfully plowed through his competition all the way to the semifinals, where he had to face Federer. With Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal out of the draw, he sensed a huge opportunity.
“I'm going to step out there and I'm not playing the seven‑time Wimbledon champion. I'm not playing a 32‑year‑old man. I'm not playing father of two sets of twins...I'm playing a guy that is standing in my way of what I want to achieve,” he told the press before the match.
However, when it came time to play in the match, Raonic was outclassed and dismissed routinely by the 17-time major champion, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. He was devastated.
“Probably the biggest lesson I learned is what not to do if I have that situation again,” he said. “It was the first time that I felt like, okay, I could really win this Slam. I think that opportunity that I felt was within grasp, that’s what got to me the most, what handicapped me. Obviously it’s tough to play Roger anyways, but if you’re not playing your best, it’s almost impossible.”
For the better part of the decade, Federer and the rest of the Big Four have swept all of the big titles and hogged all of the glory on the ATP Tour. Many of their competitors have become frustrated and disheartened by their dominance.
But this year, there have been small signs that the facade is starting to crack and that there are opportunities for other players if they can gain an edge. Stan Wawrinka proved this in January when he defeated Novak Djokovic and a hobbled Rafael Nadal to win the Australian Open.
Raonic said that seeing Wawrinka—a player that seemed destined to spend his career knocking on the door but never breaking through—hold the trophy in Melbourne really gave him a spark. “It made me sort of open my eyes,” he said. “If he can do it, why can’t I?”
If there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm.— Milos Raonic (@milosraonic) April 23, 2014
Of course, he’s not the only player who is standing out this year. Others from his generation, especially Grigor Dimitrov and Kei Nishikori, are making a push as well. That doesn’t scare Raonic, nor does it particularly motivate him.
“I’ve always been the guy in that generation that’s been breaking through first,” he said. “I’ve never looked at age as, I need to do better than this guy because he’s my age. No, it’s been about what I need to do to break into that top threshold.”
It's been a good summer for Raonic. After making the Wimbledon semifinals, he won the biggest tournament of his career at the ATP 500 Citi Open. Then at the Masters 1000s he made the quarterfinals of the Rogers Cup in Toronto and the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. It seems like since the spring, every week has been a step forward.
Therefore, he doesn’t see it as a leap to call himself one of the top contenders for the U.S. Open.
“I would say even though I made the semis at Wimbledon, grass is still my worst surface. This is the first time this year that I’ll be going into a Grand Slam on my favorite surface feeling like I could probably change my life in a big way.”
As sensible as he is towering, Raonic doesn’t make that proclamation lightly. There’s nothing childish about his dreams anymore.
He's into the third round of the U.S. Open after a straightforward 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 first-round win over Taro Daniel from Japan and a more complicated 7-6, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 win over the German Peter Gojowczyk in the second.
"The most important thing is that I showed courage at the end there," he said on ESPN after he finally defeated Gojowczyk with 26 aces and 64 winners on Thursday night. "There was maybe a couple of hours of that missing tonight."
Raonic conquered Canada many moons ago. Now it's time to see if he can conquer the bright lights of New York City and officially usher in a new era of men's tennis. He's been a trailblazer throughout his career—there's no reason to stop now.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.