It was there from the first serve of the first match in Melbourne. It must have been in Brisbane as well, where Milos Raonic breezed through the tournament and beat Roger Federer in the final, but a Grand Slam is something else again, and seeing Raonic play in the Australian Open as though he knew he could win every point was the real signal that something had changed.
Forget the intangible stuff—that’s for fan narratives and sportswriters searching for an angle. What was going on with Raonic on the court was absolutely tangible.
He looked lighter and fitter. He moved more quickly and gracefully. He’s a big guy, and he could always generate tremendous power from his serve, but with his thick legs and torso, Raonic sometimes looked like a mighty redwood on the baseline. Now he seemed almost lithe by comparison, especially coming to the net and deftly dropping volleys in places impossible for his opponent to reach.
You can spend a lot of time talking to Milos Raonic and not see him crack a smile. It’s just his nature. Emotionally, he gives precious little away, at least for public consumption.
But during that first match a kind of secret grin spread across his face as headed back to serve, like he knew, better than anyone, that he had arrived at his destination.
And there were times in the final set of that semifinal match against Andy Murray, as he smashed his racquet to pieces and grimaced through points he knew he couldn’t win, that you saw his rage and frustration at an opportunity lost.
Still, for Canadian fans, despite the disappointing conclusion, it seems we are on the verge of exciting times.
Winning a Grand Slam title is one of the rare accomplishments in sport that hasn’t been cheapened or diluted over time. There are only four of them, all different challenges because of the surfaces and circumstances and surroundings. A lot of players can win a tennis tournament, even at the highest level, but to triumph in Melbourne or Paris or London or New York, is to beat the best at their best.
On the men’s side (unlike the women’s game right now where there is Serena Williams and there is everyone else) there are no flukes, no soft draws. This is the golden age. The big four of Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray (the order shifting because of age and injury) are as good as anyone, ever. To approach their level means approaching something very special, something historic.
There has long been an understanding in the tennis world that Raonic had that potential, but you could say the same about other players with big serves, or crazy fitness, or a great bag of tricks, who never quite got there.
Murray took awhile to fight his way in. Stan Wawrinka, who Raonic beat in the fourth round in Melbourne, has looked like the closest thing to the next man up. But the gap between four and five, or seven, or 10, or 14—where Raonic began the year—remains immense. Nadal has broken down and Federer, who never breaks down, who retains so many of his sublime skills, is inevitably heading into the sunset, but still there’s no one else who can legitimately be counted among their number.
What if it turns out to be our guy? What if it’s a kid from Thornhill?
Really for the first time, in Melbourne, you could imagine that—far more than when Raonic reached the semis at Wimbledon in 2014, and then was overwhelmed by the moment and by Federer. And for the first time, he could imagine that as well. For all of his drive and all of his self-confidence, he understood better than anyone that right now he has the game, the experience, the fitness, the court sense, and that it’s all coming together as he imagined it would.
The X-factor is no longer whether he has it in him, but whether his body will let him down, as it did against Murray, a tweak of something in his upper leg or groin that he fought through bravely but couldn’t overcome. Foot injuries, back injuries—for a player who is still only 25 years old, Raonic has already spent a lot of time hobbled, or on the shelf. Watching him play out that final set knowing that he couldn’t move, knowing that he didn’t have a chance, but knowing that there was no way he was going to quit, the cruelty of the uncontrollable came to the fore.
But summer and Roland Garros and Wimbledon are a long way off. There’s time to heal.
And if he heals, there will be a chance—a real chance—for him to seize his moment.