Milos Raonic and Genie Bouchard have some things in common – both are driven to succeed and both are rarely satisfied.
During her runs to the semifinals of the 2014 Australian and French Opens and the Wimbledon final that same year, it was like a mantra for Bouchard to repeat things like what she said after beating Ana Ivanovic to reach the Melbourne Park semifinal at still 19 years old: “it’s something I’ve been doing since I was five years old and working my whole life for and sacrificing a lot of things for. So it’s not exactly a surprise. I always expect myself to do well. I’m just happy to have gone through this step. I’m not done. I have a match on Thursday.”
Following his quarter-final win over Sam Querrey at Wimbledon in July, a match that set up a semifinal versus Roger Federer, Raonic said, “it’s not enough. I came here with a simple goal for this tournament. Everybody on my team has that same objective. I think that’s why John (McEnroe) was willing to join, for that same goal. This is a process, and hopefully I can keep it going.”
Neither Bouchard nor Raonic is a “stop and smell the roses” kind of person when it comes to the business of their careers.
Raonic has been driven since his earliest days and more than one coach has had to tell him “stop, enough” during both his training on the court and in the fitness room. His instinct is to hit that one more ball, to do that one more repetition, to go the extra mile in pursuit of his dream. It can get excessive – to the point of drifting into ‘law of diminishing returns’ territory. And that’s not necessarily just from the physical side, it can also be that the mind can only take so much.
Both on and off the court Raonic, who undeniably has a lively intellect, can tend to be a bit too intense.
Before the US Open he wrote a piece for the Players’ Tribune website about his motivation to try to win the US Open.
As a logical thinker, Raonic had every reason to believe he could do well at Flushing Meadows after reaching the Wimbledon final less than two months ago.
But things don’t necessarily happen logically. If one examines the three players who have broken through the so-called Big Four dominance of men’s tennis since 2009 – Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 US Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open and the 2015 French Open and Marin Cilic at the 2014 US Open – it’s clear that luck and circumstance had as much to do with their successes as some carefully calculated Master Plan.
When del Potro beat Nadal 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in the 2009 US Open semifinals, the Spaniard had an abdominal strain and was diminished. In the final, Federer struggled with a back issue and couldn’t close out a two-sets to-one lead, losing 3-6, 7-6(5), 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-2.
Wawrinka won the 2014 Australian Open over Nadal when the then-world No. 1 injured his back during the warm-up and couldn’t play anywhere near his best against an opponent he had never lost a single set to in 12 previous encounters. Then in 2015 the Swiss defeated the almost unbeatable Novak Djokovic in the Roland Garros final after the Serb completed an exhausting semifinal win over Andy Murray the previous day while he himself rested for the next day’s final.
As for Cilic at the 2014 US Open, he blitzed Federer in the semifinals after the 33-year-old Swiss had to save two match points in a draining 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 quarter-final against Gael Monfils two days earlier. Djokovic had been removed from Cilic’s path by Kei Nishikori in the semifinals on a very hot, humid day in what were the opposite of Nole’s preferred atmospheric conditions.
You have to think consistent Top 10 players (and former Grand Slam finalists) such as Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga must wonder if they could have accomplished what del Potro, Wawrinka or Cilic did had the breaks gone their way.
Even the great Federer has had his fair share of good fortune and taking advantage of the whims of fate – finally winning the 2009 French Open when clay-court master Rafael Nadal was hampered by a knee injury and distracted by his parents’ separation and lost in the round-of-16 to clear the way.
Shortly after former world No. 1 Carlos Moya came on board as a coach in January, Raonic said in reference to the 40-year-old Spaniard, “I have an inability, after matches are over, to sort of switch off and relax completely. I think he can bring that calm to me.”
Moya has surely helped but there is probably more work to do to encourage Raonic to be less obsessive about some things in his career.
His fitness coach Dalibor Sirola and his physio Claudio Zimaglia are top-quality but it remains a concern that Raonic has really only been healthy at two of the last eight Grand Slams he has played – the 2015 Australian Open when he lost to Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals and Wimbledon this year when he was beaten by Murray in the final.
He missed the 2015 French Open after foot surgery for a painful nerve condition called Morton’s Neuroma and then was not entirely recovered for Wimbledon and lost in the third round to Nick Kyrgios. At the US Open a year ago, he spent a lot of time on court having his back worked on by trainers before going out to Feliciano Lopez in the third round.
This year, ahead two sets-to-one, he had a right adductor problem that ruined a good chance to upset Murray in the Australian Open semifinals and then a left hip issue in the third round of the French Open that may have contributed to his fourth-round loss to Carlos Ramos-Vinolas. Now, there has been the cramping at the US Open.
It’s unfortunate that he has had these issues at the Australian, French and US Opens this year because he has made great progress over the past eight months in terms of his court movement and technically in several areas including his vastly improved volleying.
Raonic has been to two Grand Slam semifinals – Wimbledon ’14 and Australian Open ’16 – as well as the Wimbledon ’16 final. He has indisputably established his bona fides as a legitimate Grand Slam challenger. Turning 26 on December 27, he probably has four or five more good years to make his breakthrough.
Even for the rest of 2016 he is well-placed – currently standing in third place in the year-long Race to the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November. He has 4,375 points and trails only Djokovic (9,040) and Murray (7,825).
He said on Wednesday that the cramps that affected him from the second set onward against Ryan Harrison were caused by, “probably just nerves and stress – a mental sort of over-exuberance.”
He also mentioned that a problem with his No. 1 weapon also contributed to his demise. “I didn’t serve well to start this tournament,” he said. “That’s normally my go-to. I think that just sort of added a little more than I normally have to deal with – just sort of caught up to me throughout the match.”
Raonic has surely learned – as painful as it was – a valuable lesson from his setback at the 2016 US Open. He’s a bit of a control freak but some things are always going to be out of the control of even the greatest players.
Maybe the No. 1 lesson for him after this year’s US Open is that sometimes he just has to “go with the flow”… but never stop believing.
So he, like Bouchard, could spend a little more of his tennis time “stopping and smelling the roses” as he pursues his goals and ambitions. Then, as former Canadian national champion Andrew Sznajder once blurted out during a match, he might end up in just the right place at just the right time to turn the switch and “wake up and smell the coffee!”
This man, located just outside the US Open’s main plaza, operates a camera that swings high into the air to give panoramic views of the area outside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
When asked if he was an artist, he answered rhetorically, “am I an artist?” then smiled and added, “an artist with a crane!”
NOTE: No blogs Labour Day weekend – back with Tebbutt Tuesday on Sept. 6.