Karl Hale on Milos Raonic: ‘Now it’s his moment to shine’

Milos Raonic looks ahead to his 7th head-to-head meeting with Andy Murray, says "It's semi-finals of a Grand Slam, time to step up."

Canada’s Milos Raonic has advanced to the semifinal of the Australian Open, where he’ll face No. 2 ranked Andy Murray on Friday. After an injury-plagued 2015 season, 2016 has been good to the 25-year-old Raonic so far. Just a few weeks ago, he announced he’d added a new coach—former world No. 1 Carlos Moya—to his team, and Raonic, currently ranked 14th in the world, is now healthy and showing what he’s capable of.

Karl Hale, tournament director for the Rogers Cup, has been watching Raonic’s career since the player was a preteen in Thornhill, Ont.

Sportsnet What did you see in the quarterfinal match where Raonic beat France’s Gael Monfils?

Karl Hale He’s just continuing on a path. I think last year, in hindsight, being injured a little bit and missing the game probably helped him. Wayne Gretzky said years ago when he took summers off is when he improved most because he missed the game and thought about it a lot. So I think Milos has had a lot of time to reflect, and he’s watched [Kei] Nishikori and [Marin] Cilic and these other players kind of take the limelight away from him a little bit—even Vasek [Pospisil] getting to the quarters of Wimbledon last year. It’s made him hungrier.

And also, I think physically, intellectually and emotionally he’s reaching his peak—25 to 29 is the peak for tennis players. So he’s entering that zone, and while he’s doing that, the other players, the top players that have been there for a while, are slowly creeping out. So it’s perfect timing for him right now.

SN How would you pinpoint what’s evolved in his game lately?

KH I think everything is just getting a little bit better. He’s coming to the net a little bit more. He’s a little bit more confident in his volleys. His movement has gotten a little bit better. It’s all a natural evolution of his game. But every little percent makes a huge difference when you’re top 10 in the world, or top 15 in the world.

But I think most of all, it’s just his confidence. He’s hungrier more than ever, he believes more than ever that this is his time, and he’s worked really hard to come back to get to this position. So he believes he deserves this, and his results are showing.

SN What sorts of opportunities does coming to the net more afford him, especially given his style of play, with his massive serve?

KH Well, he’s a big, big guy. So it’s hard to pass him. Just by coming to the net a little bit more, it gives more variety to his game, and it makes him more unpredictable. And he has a lot of opportunities to come to the net because he has such a big game—he has one of the biggest forehands in the game, the biggest serve in the game.

It affords him the opportunity to finish points quicker. This year he’s undefeated, and you see his scores in his matches—historically, they’ve always been 7-5, 7-6, 7-6, 7-5. But now he’s winning sets 6-3, 6-2, so it shows that he’s winning more comfortably, so his game has developed quite a lot.

SN What about the coaching change—what kind of effect are you seeing from that? Or do you see that yet?

KH I don’t know if you can attribute [much] to that yet. Obviously, it’s helped him, based on his results. Those coaching changes don’t just happen all of a sudden. They’ve been in the works for a little bit of time, so for him emotionally, he’s prepared to take on a new coach and listen to new things. And obviously, his new coach is one of the top coaches.

And also, you gotta think because his coach left and went with one of the top players [Ivan Ljubicic is now working with Roger Federer], that motivates him as well. So it drives him.

SN What’s been his greatest weakness or challenge so far in his career?

KH Staying healthy. As you can see with a guy like Roger Federer, breaking records for consecutive Slams played, and Djokovic, one of the things with being a great player is staying healthy. And [Raonic] has had a few issues here and there. So the big thing for him now is not how good he’ll be—everyone knows he can be a great player—it’s just staying healthy over the next five years.

One of the things Roger told me, I think it was four years ago, is he’s really impressed with Milos because he’s put a good team together around him. He’s very professional. So right now he has the best doctors, best trainers, best coaches. He has an amazing team around him, so I think he’ll have a good five-year run staying healthy and have great results like this.

SN What does it mean, as a Canadian tennis watcher, to have Raonic going to the semifinals?

KH It’s a huge deal because it’s the semifinals of a Grand Slam, so it’s huge for us as Canadians. But also, he’s 3-3 against Andy Murray. It’s an opponent that he’s very comfortable playing. He hasn’t really beaten him on the big stage—he lost to him in a big match at the U.S. Open a few years ago. But now it’s his moment to shine, and he knows that, that these are the moments you have to break through.

SN What does he need to put out there against Andy Murray if he’s going to come out the other side?

KH It’s on his racquet, so to speak. If he serves well and if he dictates play well and he controls the aggression of the match, he’ll win the match.

SN Will you be setting your alarm to watch the match at 3:30 a.m. on Friday?

KH Yes. It’s a big moment in tennis history, so we have to support him.