Mon, September 23, 2013

Olympics are Milos Raonic's moment to step up

Games a perfect stage for Canadian tennis star to show his mettle

By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency


Milos Raonic hits a return to Japan's Tatsuma Ito in their men's singles match at the Wimbledon All-England Club during the London 2012 Olympics Games, July 30, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)


LONDON - In a very short time, Milos Raonic has gone from unknown to sensation, from can't-miss to questionable, and now he is here at the most famous sporting event in the world, at the greatest of all tennis venues, trying again to define himself and his place.

He is one of the athletes on Canada's Olympic team that the other athletes want to meet. He is someone they know, have watched on television, have seen his emergence from nowhere to somewhere, only Raonic isn't exactly certain where he's at as a tennis player, although he does admit he is liking this Olympic thing.

This is no longer a strange novelty for the tennis players. They're no different than the pros who play in the National Hockey League. They welcome being here. They cherish being here. "It's different," said the Canadian, Aleksandra Wozniak. "It's a privilege to be here."

But for Raonic, that privilege may be short lived.

Without a great deal of effort and in truth, rather playing sloppily, Raonic sleep-walked his way to a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Japan's Tatsuma Ito Monday morning. He wasn't really in control against Ito, but he didn't have to be. And that's the gnawing question with Raonic, whose game too often reflects the quality of his opponent. Who is he? What is he? And what's he going to be?

His serve is all world. The rest of his game needs to catch up to his serve. Almost lazily, Raonic breezed through the first set against Ito and then almost gave away the second set. It wasn't until 4-4 in the second that he got at all aggressive, breaking Ito's serve to take the lead. And then you got to see the good Raonic -- the one John McEnroe and Roger Federer talk about, the eventual Top 10 player -- as he served his way to victory.

He changed for a moment in that 10th game of the second set. There was an air of relentlessness about him. There was a confidence and a dominance of sorts.

And he might be the best lesson of all for those watching at home, judging Olympians by where they finish in the world, mocking performance that doesn't meet our often uneducated standards.

Raonic is the 25th-best male tennis player in the world, according to the computer that does the rankings. And that excites people.

That would mean a medal here -- a medal of any colour -- would be stepping well beyond his own ranking. But sometimes perception can be reality in sports: Raonic is applauded and encouraged, a star in the making, as the 25th best in his sport. He owns the highest ranking ever for a Canadian in the sport.

A swimmer is considered a failure if he's ninth in the world. That won't even get him to a final.

A fourth-place finish used to be called Canadian Bronze. That was a joke of sorts. Should Raonic ever find his way to fourth in the world, he will be a figure in the Steve Nash, Joey Votto class.

But he still sees himself as this green kid, learning how to play on grass, looking for his first success at Wimbledon even. He matches up next round against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the sixth best player in the world. That likely will end the Canadian's Olympics. But the thing with Raonic is, he's like a heavyweight fighter with a big punch.

He always has a chance.

"It's just about myself," said Raonic, talking about the big step up in opponents today. "If I step up, I have an opportunity to win. If I don't, I don't think I will have that opportunity.

"It's going to be a good match. It was unfortunate and I was sort of bummed out not to have a chance to play (Tsonga) earlier in the year (in Vancouver) but right now I don't think there's a better stage for us. To have this opportunity again, it's a big one. My job is take care of my serve and take care of opportunities and go for the win."

What he needs a little more Emilie Heymans in him. That ability to be in the moment and perform. Like he says, it's not about his opponent. It's all about Milos.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

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