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Will Milos Raonic Be a Regular Grand Slam Contender?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJuly 15, 2016

Canada's Milos Raonic reacts while playing Britain's Andy Murray during the men's singles final match on the last day of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 10, 2016. / AFP / POOL AND AFP / John WALTON / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE        (Photo credit should read JOHN WALTON/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images

Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic is feeling empty after a disappointing straight-sets loss to Andy Murray. It’s like getting invited to a banquet but only getting served a couple of slices of bread. That’s not enough for the big Canadian, an aspiring star who hungers to be a regular major contender.

Raonic’s bittersweet run is an important moment. It will either be a career highlight or another step in his ascension as one of the top players in the world.

It’s not that easy to make it back to a major final. Ask Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori, top-10 regulars who all have one major final on their career resumes. And Raonic has a long way to go match their years of consistency.

What is different about the 26-year-old Raonic? Does he have the patience and motivation to endure disappointments and setbacks? Can he keep creating more big-match opportunities to eventually cash in on those coveted majors?

The Case for Major Success

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 10:  Milos Raonic of Canada plays a backhand during the Men's Singles Final  against Andy Murray of Great Britain on day thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 10,
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Every Raonic analysis begins and ends with his massive serve. It’s the most feared weapon in tennis and the way he needs to win pressure points in big matches. In 2016, Raonic has amassed an impressive 20-8 tiebreak record. But in the Wimbledon final four, he tightened up, losing the second-set semifinal tiebreaker to Roger Federer 7-3 and two fairly meek tiebreakers in the final to Murray 7-3. 7-2.

Raonic will only win major titles if he consistently wins those tiebreakers.

The good news is that Raonic has become a more opportunistic, aggressive player. He does not possess the exceptional footwork of the sport’s biggest stars, but his timing of when to approach the net is vastly improved, and he is coming in more frequently, over 40 times a match during Wimbledon’s best-of-five matches.

If Raonic continues to upgrade these opportunities during rallies, he will create more pressure and break-point opportunities. He's been enthused with his training and growing results with coaches Carlos Moya and John McEnroe. He’s bought into how he must play, and as long as he gets better, he will be a major threat.

The most important ingredient is Raonic’s dedication. There are stories that detail his work ethic from his childhood, and he has proven to be a tireless professional. He’s been on the tour long enough to understand how hard it is to win at the highest level. He’s very likely to take full advantage of the years ahead and not shrink, but rather to learn how veterans like Ferrer and Stan Wawrinka were able to improve in their late 20s.

The Case Against Major Success

Canada's Milos Raonic returns to Britain's Andy Murray during the men's singles final match on the last day of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 10, 2016. / AFP / POOL AND AFP / Jo
AFP/Getty Images

Will the big man stay healthy? All of that footwork and positioning, especially coming in to net, means bending his knees and back in ways that are not so easy for someone two meters tall who is built with largely disproportionate legs and has sometimes awkward movement.

In the last two years, Raonic has felt his share of injuries. In late 2014, a quad injury cost him a chance to complete the World Tour Finals in London. In 2015, a foot injury sabotaged his chances at the peak of the clay-court season. In 2016, injured adductor muscles hurt his chances in a five-set loss to Murray at the Australian Open. Crucial injuries have often undercut him in the late stages of tournaments. He must be healthier to compete for major titles.

Does Raonic have the champion’s killer mentality? Does he believe he is the best player on the planet? While Novak Djokovic and Murray stake their claims to major titles, it would be easy for also-rans like Raonic to accept their lot in getting close to the prize and folding.

Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail wrote that Raonic did not have the mental toughness to compete for the Wimbledon title: “After years spent trying to reach and then maintain the highest level, Raonic is good enough to win majors. And so you are left with the inescapable conclusion that Raonic’s problem is no longer the tennis, per se. It’s the game inside the game. It’s the one he plays in his head.”

Coach McEnroe has looked to instill more emotion in the usually quiet Raonic. There were successful winning points in the Federer semifinal when Raonic released his id, but against Murray he had a hard time getting up. For the most part, it was a stoic loss, and even McEnroe said, via Kelly's article, late in the third set during his Wimbledon final TV commentating duties, “Maybe he’ll never have an opportunity [like this again]. Maybe embrace this a little more than he seems to have.

Further success might depend on Raonic’s improved toughness, but toughness might be the key for ultimate success. It’s the chicken or the egg, and in the end he’s going to need to grow in both capacities. Until then, it’s hard to see Raonic striding out to a major final with the swagger that he is going to blow through his legendary opponents.

The Road Ahead to Major Glory

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 10:  Milos Raonic of Canada looks on during the Men's Singles Final  against Andy Murray of Great Britain on day thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 10, 2016 in
Pool/Getty Images

There are plenty of short-term goals that will help Raonic become a regular contender. He would love to get back (lost the 2013 final to Rafael Nadal) to the Rogers Cup final and hold up the trophy for his home country. He will be targeting another major run at the U.S. Open.

The objective for Raonic is to keep sweeping through the early matches and dispose of the other top-10 players. He needs to crack the semifinals at majors often enough until he wins those final two matches. As long as he gains experience in how to win those big matches, he will eventually break down the door and claim a major title.

Can Raonic be consistent in the huge tournaments? We’ve seen good performances from Tsonga, Berdych, Nishikori and other second-tier stars, but it’s rare to see them get to major semifinals. That has to be a consistent achievement, not a rarity, if Raonic is to blossom into a contending superstar.

Raonic has been an admirable professional who will keep ascending or become stalled. He’s got the dedication to go with his huge service game, but there’s a long and winding road to be king of the mountain.

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