Canadian Milos Raonic lost in the Indian Wells Masters to another young talent in 18-year-old American Ryan Harrison - but nevertheless it was a large and important step for him to take.
Raonic remains the big revelation of the early part of the season with 12 wins and only four losses to date. Coming through the qualifying rounds, he went on to reach the fourth round in Melbourne then won in San Jose and reached the final in Memphis. He is climbing the rankings like a rocket: 156th in January, he's now ranked 37 and most experts say he'll be top 20 and maybe even top 10 by the end of the year.
How can one explain this phenomenon; how a player who lost in the qualifying rounds for Chennai in January against Edouard Roger-Vasselin can, the following week, become the next big thing? Milos is not an unknown player - I've talked about him for a few years - but he's suddenly improved a lot. In fact he has gotten better over the last two years. He was never a target for sponsors and scouts because he was a bit behind Dimitrov, Tomic, Harrison, Krajinovic and Kuznetsov; plus, he was never dominant on the junior tour in comparison to other promising players of his age. Milos was unable to express himself on the court during this period: very nervous, easily angry, he often lost his mind while competing. He is now better at dealing with this frustration - and it is because of this that he is now on the rise. Only a year ago he was playing in Future events...
Raonic relies on a highly efficient first serve that has seen him lead the aces ranking. His second serve is probably one of the best on the Tour too because he can put a lot of topspin on it and his opponents are forced to play the return above the shoulder so they're basically playing out of the court on the advantage side. He has mastered the first-serve sequence: forehand down the line and move to the net. On the baseline, he doesn't miss much because he plays it safe thanks to a large amount of topspin. He is also very aggressive on his forehand, not hesitating to come to the net where he is also very efficient. He makes up for his relatively slow footwork by playing deep balls and hitting cleanly.
So why is this Raonic any different to what we've seen before? Since the Australian Open, his game has taken a big step forwards. He played the quallies there without really getting into gear, but then, little by little, everything clicked. With his confidence rising, he was playing the same way but with more belief in himself, and it worked: further proof of how this sport is played in the head.
Matches are part of a player's training - and can be considered the best session possible. While competing, the player is totally committed, physically and mentally. He puts in his shots and footwork with all the necessary intensity. He is focused on winning and so searches for solutions to increase his efficiency. He discovers new skills. He'll naturally find the areas of the game he's most comfortable in. It is during matches that a player can reach a new level. As Marcos Baghdatis often told me: "It's a very positive thing to hear you've got potential - but it remains abstract. We only really believe it when it's been proven and experienced." This experience is won in matches.
If improvements aren't tested in matches, they aren't a done deal - Training is
important in order to set up tactical sequences - technical motions - for repetition
until they are a part of the player's game. Yet, the process is not fully
complete until they have been put into effect during matches. Competition is
the only judge.
A point in a match can affect a player for months - A victory is often decided by
a small detail, such as a point won or lost, while the difference between victory
and defeat is often huge. How many first-round matches won after saving match
points have helped a player reach the next level in his game in later rounds?
Some players had to be happy with an average career because they came out on
the wrong side of a few big turning points.
first strength of a champion is his ability to win - Contrary to the
common idea, champions are not always the most gifted players. Sure, Roger
Federer is the best example of the opposite, but we cannot say the same for the
past No.1s in both the men's and women's games. Their first ability is to win
under any circumstances, playing well or not.
In January, Milos already
owned that big serve, those same physical abilities and baseline shots. He was
already familiar with the game style he liked the best. But he found a way to
win one match and then everything came together: he seemed stronger, more
confident and therefore tougher to beat.
He lost this week against a
younger player than him, Harrison being born in 1992. For the first time in a
while he was in the role of favourite against a player with nothing to lose.
Harrison, struggling for several months, has raised his own game match after
match; his talent and potential are also shining through now.
Raonic, Harrison, Tomic, Dimitrov,
Kuznetsov, Krajinovic: the young guns are on their way now - and it's a
pleasure to watch them.