A Rao-sing start to the season

Fanatical followers of tennis will already be familiar with the name Milos Raonic.  More casual spectators of the sport soon will be.  After an impressive run to the fourth round of the Australian Open, the Canadian has come blazing out of the blocks to reach two finals in a row. 

Raonic qualified for only his second Grand Slam back in January and few would have predicted the run he made.  After taking out the tricky #22 seed Michael Llodra in straight sets in the second round, he toppled #10, US Open semi-finalist Mikhail Youzhny, in the third.  He stole a set from eventual semi-finalist David Ferrer in the fourth round before bowing out.  It was a flash of brilliance from a rising star but nothing to get too dazzled by yet, right?  Wrong.

Since Melbourne, Montenegro-born Milos has been outshining some of the Tour’s best and brightest on an almost daily basis.  Aside from a stumble at the SA Tennis Open in Johannesburg, the 20-year-old has spent most of the past two weeks spitting out seeds with admirable audacity.

At the SAP Open in San Jose, Raonic won his first of surely many ATP titles to come.  In a route to the final that saw him navigate past #4 seed Xavier Malisse, veer ahead of veteran James Blake and run over rising Lithuanian prospect Richard Berankis – all in straight sets – Raonic was shown a shortcut in the semis when #2 seed Gael Monfils withdrew with a wrist injury.  In the final, though, he proved his worth by defeating #1 seed Fernando Verdasco 7-6(6) 7-6(5) to become the first Canadian to win an ATP tournament since good old Greg Rusedski (before he jumped ship to Great Britain).

As if vanquishing Verdasco once wasn’t good enough, Raonic did it again in the first round of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis just four days later.  A frustrated Fernando rubbished Raonic for relying on his serve rather than running and rallying.  But the Canadian could hardly care as another impressive run, in which he has beaten Radek Stepanek and Mardy Fish, has taken him to his second consecutive final, this time against fifty-times ATP finalist Andy Roddick, which will be served up tonight.

According to wise old Wikipedia, even if Raonic loses tonight he will still rise to #37 in the world.  Not bad considering he started the year at #159.  He is also set to be the highest ranked Canadian player in ATP history – again, perhaps not the most impressive statistic given the dearth of Canucks at the top end of the game, but certainly nothing to be sniffed at.

In many ways, Raonic combines some of the best elements of the best players in one 6’ 5” package.  He has the serving accuracy and hardcourt speed of Andy Murray; the fire and energy of Rafael Nadal; and the work ethic of fellow Balkan Novak Djokovic.  Add to that the trophy-winning tendencies of Roger Federer and Milos Raonic could rise to be the brightest start in the sport by the end of the year.

Martin McGale

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