You sure get the feeling that if Milos Raonic can stay healthy, 2016 could be his best year yet.
And maybe deliver his first Grand Slam triumph.
Keeping body and soul together, alas, has been a big challenge over the years for the 25-year-old Canadian. Perhaps it’s those impossibly long levers, the gangly arms and legs that seem to begin around his rib cage, that make it hard to keep all the muscles and ligaments happy and loose while pursuing a career on the grind that is the ATP tour.
He’s only played three tournaments this year, winning Brisbane in January and getting to the semifinals at the Australian Open before being betrayed by a wonky adductor muscle in a semifinal match against Andy Murray.
Now, in Indian Wells, the first big tournament on the tennis agenda since the shocking doping revelations of Maria Sharapova, Raonic is in the semis again, having taken a long break after Melbourne to get healthy again. In his last two matches, he’s knocked off tour veterans Bernard Tomic, Tomas Berdych and Gael Monfils in succession to move to 13-1 on the season, and now faces the rabbit-like David Goffin of Belgium with a chance to go to Sunday’s final.
Goffin has beaten Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic to get to this point and is playing some great tennis. He beat Raonic in their only previous ATP Tour match in Basel back in 2014, although Raonic did beat Goffin in qualifying for the 2011 Aussie Open.
Those matches hardly matter, as both players would tell you they’re different players today than back then. Goffin is a bit of a late bloomer, having busted into the top 20 for the first time last year, while Raonic has seemed to have found another gear, another level, under the supervision of new coach Carlos Moya this season.
Ivan Ljubicic did good work with Raonic, and got him to No. 6 in the world. But he moved on to Roger Federer, and Raonic is now linked with Moya as well as Ricardo Piatti, who was co-coach with Ljubicic.
What we saw in Australia, first in beating Federer in the Brisbane final and then by charging to the Open semifinals, was both a Raonic more capable of staying in long rallies, but also a player far more committed than ever to getting to the net behind his booming serve.
The more he moves forward, the more confident and dangerous he seems to be. It’s as though something in his analytical mind has just clicked. The math makes more sense to him with this new approach. He’s not the best volleyer on tour, but he’s solid, and his serve and powerful forehand often generate easy returns that he can quickly put away.
Goffin was able to handle the big serve of the six-foot-six Cilic, a former U.S. Open champ, and he’ll offer more consistency, particularly on the return game, than did Monfils. So it should be an intriguing matchup in the desert.
For Raonic, there was a moment late in the Monfils match when he turned awkwardly to his right, but he was fine. Along with the maturity in his game, he’s developed the ability to manage himself, preferring to recover fully from injuries before getting back on tour.
It’s smart policy, even if it means he misses action, or can’t compete for Canada at the Davis Cup, as was the case last month against the French. He’s surrounded by players who are battling injuries, or have in the recent past. Stars like Juan Martin del Potro just can’t stay healthy for very long at all, while Rafael Nadal, Murray and others have dealt with serious injuries.
Raonic knows if he’s not healthy, he can’t compete at a top 10 level, and clearly he understands that even if his ranking suffers -- he’s dropped to No. 14 now -- recovery from injuries has to be his top priority. Rather than play through a nagging problem, his choice is not to play at all.
Right now, the breaks in activity actually seem to be helping him. Maybe it’s keeping him fresh. Whatever the case, he’s been nearly unbeatable in limited action this season.
With the developments in his game under Moya, he could be a threat for Roland Garros. Perhaps at Wimbledon as well.
That first major is still out there waiting for him if he can stay out of the infirmary.