Although not a one-trick pony, Milos Raonic’s serve will always be his launchpad for success
For all that modern tennis has neutralised the big serve, as a weapon, it can still take you a long way. Milos Raonic is more than just a big serve — more of which shortly — but, boy, his version of big is really big.
As a weapon it was honed when he was a kid, training early mornings in Ontario, Canada. He would go very early with his father, because any later and the court costs would be too high.
Because nobody else was around to practice against that early, Raonic spent two hours pretty much just serving. Few current players serve as hard as he does and he is unapologetic about its potency as a weapon: “I aim on the line every single time I step up to serve,” he said in an interview in 2014. “My intention is, hit that ace.”
He can and has done it often enough: in 2012, 2013 and 2014, he was the second-highest server of aces on the tour and he would have been higher than the fifth he finished in 2015 had he been injury-free.
But, as could be glimpsed in his straight sets loss to Rafael Nadal in the final of the Mubadala World Tennis Championships (MWTC) on Saturday the serve is both a weapon and a mask.
It overshadows the fact that he has a fairly evolved — and still evolving — game beyond the big serve. Essentially, everything he does after the serve still follows from the nature of the serve, or, big man tennis as it is known. But his game is not as beholden to it as you might imagine.
For one, he is a deft presence at the net with good hands and, importantly, good nerve. He is not afraid to come in and stay there, and as he revealed later, it is a conscious decision to incorporate the tactic into his game.
“I think I was coming in a bit more [tonight], working my way up to the net,” he said. “I think I have to find a little bit of balance. Today, serve and volley I probably did 60-70% of the time. On second serves maybe I need to find more of a balance but it is definitely something I want to incorporate in my game.”
Though his 6’5” frame makes him appear awkward when he moves in, it does give him coverage. In the seventh game of the second set, it enabled him to reach a Nadal pass on his backhand side, and his touch allowed him to put a fine volley away. It drew applause from Nadal himself.
More needs to happen for him to become a consistent disturbance to tennis’s top five, as he has long been predicted to be. As on Saturday night, the feeling remains if you can break him once, it might be enough, and he has won only five out of 32 matches against Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray.
His health, as he has been at pains to point out in Abu Dhabi, will be a major factor. Injuries interrupted what seemed, finally, like a coming of age last season. But he is, he thinks, fitter than ever before.
The recruiting of former world No 1 Carlos Moya as his coach might make a difference too. Moya could imbue his game with the rugged nous that makes a difference at elite levels.
Tellingly, Raonic feels Moya will bring him “that kind of calm and peace in moments where maybe I can’t find it on my own off the court and before the important matches.”
It could be the moment at which his game, his career really takes off. “I’m playing well, I’m fit,” he signed off in Abu Dhabi, “and dammit if I’m not hungry.”
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