Milos Raonic has become a significantly better tennis player over the past six months.
Some of the advances in his game were almost unimaginable when the 2016 season began.
Who would have believed the amazing improvement in his volleying. At one point during Sunday’s Wimbledon action, this Canadian reporter turned to professorial American tennis writer Steve Flink, who has attended 48 Wimbledons, and asked, ‘who is a better volleyer in men’s tennis at the moment than Raonic?’
The only name he could come up with was Roger Federer.
That’s as classy company as you can find and further evidence of just how far Raonic’s game has come.
But he hasn’t quite come far enough as was shown in his facing a superb performance by Andy Murray in Sunday’s Wimbledon final – won 6-4, 7-6(3), 7-6(2) by the 29-year-old Scot.
There was only one service break in the entire match – with Murray getting a jumpstart by breaking to 4-3 in the opening set. But he had Raonic under constant pressure, with the No. 7-ranked Canadian only getting to deuce twice on the Murray serve in the match. The second time was at 2-all in the final set when he had his only two break points at 15-40 but misfired with a forehand service return and then with a backhand – both into the net.
There was one repeated sequence that could have worked in Raonic’s favour – from game eight of the first set until the fifth game of the third set, Raonic started seven of nine Murray service games with a love-15 lead but would often make an unforced error with an opportunity to begin mounting some pressure by getting to love-30.
The bottom line on the match was that Murray’s service returning was as advertised – awesome – but he also served well and gave Raonic few opportunities to threaten him. A stat that speaks volumes was that Raonic won only 67 per cent of first serve points while Murray was an impressive 87 per cent.
In terms of returns put in play – Raonic made 66 per cent while Murray was good on 74 per cent.
The options for Raonic were pretty simple once the players got into a rally – get into a lot of back-and-forth play where Murray’s superior movement and natural counter-attacking would prevail or advance to the net as rapidly as was possible and try to get Murray out of his rhythm.
He wisely opted for the second choice and was a reasonable 62 per cent (46/74) in net approaches, but was still outdone there as Murray was 77 per cent (17/22).
The best opportunities for Raonic probably were in the two tiebreaks – but Murray got mini-breaks in both on Raonic’s first service point and he quickly led 6-1 in both. That was a clear sign he was the better player and Raonic was not hesitant about admitting as much after the match. “I think I did the best I could,” he said. “I tried to put the things together. I tried coming forward, putting pressure on him. He was playing much better than me off the baseline. He was more effective there.”
And the Murray serve return, although he only got that one break, was constant and unrelenting. “He moves incredibly well,” Raonic said about Murray. “He returns well. Those are his two biggest strengths. But every single time you play him, you know he’s going to get more returns back than anybody else, along with Novak. That’s what those two guys do.”
Obviously Murray is a superior athlete, but as he explained later his return skills don’t happen without some attention. “I practice my returns a lot,” he said. “It didn’t sort of just happen by chance. I work on it and put a lot of time into my return game.
“When I was sort of 15, 16, and when I went over to Spain, I didn’t really practice my returns loads. But since I came on the tour, it’s something that I’ve dedicated a lot of time to. I practice it for, you know, 30 minutes every day. A lot of players hit loads of tennis balls, and maybe at the end of practice they serve a little bit and return a little bit. Sometimes those two shots get left out. But, you know, they’re the most important shots in the game, so I practice them a lot.”
Raonic did not play badly, his backhand slice was consistent and reliable, skimming over the net and reaching acute angles that only a player with Murray’s superior counter-attacking skill would have success handling.
And his net play, as mentioned, was solid though Murray’s ability to thread passing shots using his speed and accuracy often had the answer.
Australian Todd Woodbridge was one of the best volleyers in tennis and that helped him rack up a record nine Wimbledon doubles titles. He covered Sunday’s final for Channel Seven in Australia alongside John Newcombe, who won the Wimbledon singles three times (1967-70-71).
“The match came down to the return of serve from Andy, he got so many balls into play,” Woodbridge said. “Milos only had one ace in the first set (eight overall), toward the end of that set. The ace count was down. I think when Milos looks at his week, he’ll say, ‘my consistency at the Slam level is really good now. In two to three years I’ll be 27-28 and I’ll be in my physical prime. I’ve put everything in place and I’ll be there to win majors.’”
Woodbridge added, “that was my view and of John Newcombe in particular. Milos has taken notice what Novak has done and what Andy has done and built teams to become as good as he possibly can. Today he wasn’t quite as good as he needed to be but he has come on in leaps and bounds. His volleys have improved ten-fold.
“You know when a big name (John McEnroe) comes into a camp early on, we all talk about it a lot in the media but you don’t know if it’s going to pay dividends. It seems like tips from McEnroe on the volleying have made a difference. The technique looks better – he’s much sounder but my comment is that he’s transitioning better to the net. The approach shots are in the right place, he’s in to the right parts of the court off the right ball. I think that has been the biggest improvements that I saw. That’s made the net game look way more natural.”
Forward movement is going to be the foundation of the evolving Raonic game.
“The disappointment for me was that Milos didn’t come to the net more often,” said Raonic coach Riccardo Piatti, “he’s been working on that, and his (service) returning game. Anyway, it was the final of Wimbledon playing against Murray who has already been in two Grand Slam finals this year and has won many tournaments. It’s easy to talk about these things, not so easy to do them.”
Piatti has spent more time with Raonic the past two years in a coaching position than anyone and been with him since the spring of 2014.
“But really Milos is not the player he can be yet,” Piatti said. “I think we’ll see something in one year. He needs more experience in matches and to get the most out of his game which is quite a difficult (and demanding) game.”
Piatti, 57, had a lot of positive things to say about John McEnroe, who came on board with the Raonic team at the Queen’s Club event in London three weeks before Wimbledon.
“He knows a lot about the game and that’s why Milos wanted to work with John and Carlos (Moya) to have that information passed on,” Piatti said. “Sure I’ve been a coach for 30 years but if the information is coming from a former player I think it’s much better.
“John has a great mentality. He loves tennis, he loves the game and to work in a team. He brings experience and he’s quite a direct person. If he sees something he says it immediately to Milos and that is quite important.”
“It’s been 39 years since I spent seven weeks in Europe,” McEnroe said about his stint (and two weeks at Roland Garros) with Raonic. “I believed in this guy, that he was a guy that really cared and was extremely professional but a good person. Andy mentioned (Murray during the post-match presentation ceremonies) that he has a great team. I’m proud to be involved with him. I don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward. But this five weeks in London has been exciting and different. I almost felt like I was a player again.”
Raonic will have Moya in Toronto for Rogers Cup and then Piatti in Cincinnati and to prepare for the US Open.
He was non-committal about McEnroe going forward but did say, “I think we’ll probably try to find an extent that it can work. He can help me and I’ll try to make the most of it.”
Looking back over a fortnight of intense tennis that included a breakthrough win over seven-time champion Roger Federer in the semifinals, Raonic said, “I showed guts. I showed vigour. I’ve got to carry that through to the next events.”
His next tournament will be Rogers Cup at home in Toronto.
Summing up a historic and memorable day in Centre Court with everyone from great champions like five-time winner Bjorn Borg of Sweden to British Prime Minister David Cameron watching from the Royal Box, the always-driven Raonic said, “what happened today, happened today. The only thing I could ever regret is if I didn’t do everything I can to make myself return to this position again.”
Shapovalov: A big boy junior
With a 12-match winning streak started at the Nike Junior International in Roehampton (London) two weeks ago and completed at the Wimbledon junior boys event this past week, Denis Shapovalov has established himself as the best junior player in the world.
The 17-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont. completed his remarkable run with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 victory over Alex De Minaur of Australia in Sunday’s boys final on No. 1 Court at Wimbledon.
It was a rocky start for Shapovalov, who later admitted to feeling very nervous. He lost his serve in the first game of the match and again in the third, bracketed around a service loss by De Minaur. But the match settled at that point and the right-hander from Sydney was able to hold the rest of the way to take the first set.
In the second, Shapovalov found his game and basically took over the match, breaking the steady but not overpowering De Minaur five times in the second and third sets. He only lost his own serve once the rest of the way to wrap up the Wimbledon boys title for Canada for the second time in five years. Filip Peliwo of Vancouver won the event in 2012, the same year Genie Bouchard captured the girls title.
Shapovalov impressed a lot of hardcore tennis fans with his gusto, his serve, his volleying ability and his one-handed backhand, which one observer compared to Richard Gasquet’s.
“It was tough in the first set,” Shapovalov said about the final. “I felt like I was late a lot, especially because the way he hits the ball, he hits it very flat. It’s different from a lot of players I’ve been playing. In the second set, I kind of found that confidence again, started going for shots. When I broke him the first time, at deuce I think I had a backhand pass. I just ripped it as hard as I could hoping it went in – and it did. The next point I had an inside/out forehand. I told myself, I’m going to go for it, I don’t care if I miss, I’m going to go for my shots. I went for it, made it, got the break.”
After the match, Shapovalov spoke to his parents Tessa and Viktor at home in Canada. “They’re extremely happy,” he said. “I mean, I couldn’t see but it sounded like they even had tears in their eyes. For sure it’s very exciting for them.”
His mother runs a program called TessaTennis in Vaughan north of Toronto.
He will next get to measure himself against the top level of men’s tennis – the ATP World Tour.
The management firm Lagardere has given him a wild card into next week’s ATP 500 event in Washington, D.C. “I got the wild card to Washington, the Citi Open,” he said. “That’s going to be huge for me. I’m very excited. The Citi Open is one of the oldest and prestigious tournaments. It’s going to be great for me to play my first high ATP‑level tournament.”
Shapovalov has shown he can match it with tour players by winning three Futures events and reaching a Challenger semifinal since the beginning of 2016. His current ranking of No. 374 puts him seventh among Canadians with ATP rankings.
Shapovalov’s only disappointment on the day was that he and great friend Félix Auger-Aliassime of Montreal were unable to win the boys doubles event. Playing back on the same No. 1 court after a ladies invitation doubles match was completed, the top-seeded Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime were beaten 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 by second seeds Kenneth Raisma of Estonia and Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece.
“I feel bad for Félix for the doubles,” Shapovalov said. “I feel like mostly I blew it. In the third set I felt a little bit tired.”
The two can console themselves with at least already having one Grand Slam title – at the US Open last September.
So the 2016 grass-court season is complete and Shapovalov is the junior boys master. “I went 12‑0 this season on grass,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I think my game suits it a lot. I knew going into grass courts, I was very excited for it. I knew from last year, I beat the world No. 5 first round of Wimbledon last year.
“Yeah, of course, I love playing on grass.”
It was a truncated afternoon for Shapovalov, but he was able to catch some of Milos Raonic playing for the men’s title in Centre Court. “I was following a little bit of it,” he said. “I know Milos lost in two tight tiebreakers. I saw him actually in the doping (testing). I told him, ‘tough match.’ He congratulated me.”
About Raonic and Auger-Aliassime not succeeding in their matches on Sunday, Shapovalov said, “too bad Milos couldn’t make it. He was close. He was playing good tennis. I think in the future both Félix and Milos will get their Grand Slam.”
Wimbledon post card
This apartment building is located on Church Road just as it starts to rise in a gradual climb up toward Wimbledon Village. It’s called Renshaw Court (after 19th century Wimbledon champion Willie Renshaw) and the units on the north (back) side have a lovely view down over the All England Club.