Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and… Milos Raonic. Those were the four faces of the Rogers Cup 2012 campaign. The top three players in the world and a Canadian. Granted the tournament is held in Canada, and it’s always nice to showcase homegrown talent, but there has never been another year in which one of our own belonged among the elite in the tennis world.
After all, Raonic is the best server in the game right now. Far from succumbing to a sophomore slump following his breakout in 2011, he started the year with a bang, powering his way to a singles title at the Aircel Chennai Open in January before defending his 2011 win at the SAP Open in San Jose, Calif., the following month. A couple of runner-up appearances in Tokyo and Memphis, not to mention deep runs at the Rogers Cup, Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, saw Raonic vault up the ATP rankings. By November, he’d climbed from 31st in the world to 13th, the highest male singles ranking ever held by a Canadian.
Titles and top-25s are great for the resumé, bank account and trophy case. But the real value of Raonic’s success is that it’s giving Canadian sports fans a compelling reason to get interested in, and excited about, tennis. And he’s doing it in thrilling fashion. The effect was evident during the 2012 Davis Cup, where Raonic’s 3-0 record in singles matches helped propel the Canadian team into the 16-country elite tier for the first time since 2004.
But Raonic also shone in less triumphant moments, reminding us that he’s still just getting started, and that the sky’s the limit. Take, for instance, his second-round loss (6–3, 3–6, 25–23) at the Olympics—a match that seemed like it would never end but was also one of the most captivating of the year. Representing Canada, Raonic battled France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for three hours and 57 minutes—the longest three-set match in the history of the Games, until Federer and Juan Martin del Potro topped it by 29 minutes later that week. Raonic lost, but on sport’s grandest stage, he had given the world No. 6 all he could handle.
Now consider how he’s fared against Federer. Sure, he’s lost all three matches, but Raonic never backed down against the best player on the planet, pushing Federer to a third set in all three meetings and forcing a tiebreaker in the last two. "I’ve been knocking on the door," Raonic said. "Hopefully, next time around I can kick it down."
At 21 years old, there’s no doubt Raonic will splinter that door before long. This year saw him cement himself as the face of Canadian tennis—recognized by the top players in the game and by fans worldwide—and we couldn’t have asked for a better one. In the time I spent with him at the Rogers Cup this past summer, I witnessed a charismatic young athlete, great with fans and hungry for superstardom. That charm and ambition couldn’t be better for the future of tennis in Canada, but it’s the unprecedented success he enjoyed in just his first full season on the tour, putting Canadian tennis on the map, that made Milos Raonic this country’s top athlete in 2012.