By Kristina Rutherford in Toronto
By Kristina Rutherford in Toronto
If you've ever wondered why athletes have entourages, there's a simple answer. To be No. 1, you need help. Like, a lot of help.

The fuchsia shirt Milos Raonic has on is suddenly the second-most-noticeable part of his ensemble, and by a long shot. Halfway through a two-hour practice on a scorching morning in Toronto, he pulls out a pair of thick-framed, dark-tinted glasses that look like they’d provide super-vision if this were a superhero movie and not a tennis workout. Raonic secures the elastic band around his head then pushes a button on the side of the frames, and the lenses start to flash. Every flash renders him blind for a few milliseconds. It’s now up to Raonic’s brain to fill in those blanks, to anticipate a ball’s arrival without seeing its entire path. Raonic sends a forehand volley long. “No!” he yells, showing off sparkling white teeth as he grins across the court at Carlos Moya, a former world No. 1 and one of three men he calls coach. After a few more rallies, Raonic pulls the glasses off his sweaty face and resumes practice. He can see again.

Canada’s best tennis player has never been shy about his desire to be the world No. 1. And when you spend time with the 25-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., you can see he means it when he says he’s “leaving no stone unturned” to that end. Raonic spares no expense, and the glasses—which a vision specialist suggested to help improve his reaction time—are just a small part of it. The massive team of people around Raonic is so all-encompassing it makes you wonder whether somebody’s in charge of tucking him in at night. (Though his sports doctor, Yoni Yarom, will assure you: “I don’t sleep with him.”) Despite all these efforts, going into the Rogers Cup, Raonic has never beaten the world’s top player, and he has yet to win a Grand Slam. A first-ever Wimbledon final means he’s getting closer, though, so the question now is whether Raonic is capable of taking those massive final strides. This much is certain: If he never takes over that No. 1 spot, it simply wasn’t in him.

“At this level, only a couple of guys can afford this support”

A man who has never hit a tennis ball in his life is one of the few constants on an ever-changing support crew—Raonic’s father, Dusan. He sits courtside in a sliver of shade at Aviva Centre, one of 13 people here at practice, a group that includes a linebacker-shouldered security guard, Raonic’s public-relations staffer, his fitness trainer, a bunch of media and Yarom, who flew 9,263 km from Tel Aviv to spend three days with his client. “At this level,” says Dusan, a former engineer who’s more comfortable talking atomic energy than tennis, “only a couple of guys can afford this support.”

Dusan retired when his son turned pro, and he’s the man Raonic comes to for small off-court matters. And for one big one: financial advice. When Raonic was considering adding a third coach to help with his grass and net game this season—his other two coaches being Moya, the 1998 French Open champion who started in January, and Italian Ricardo Piatti, a former coach of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who was hired at the end of 2013—he asked his dad first. “If there is enough money and potential to make more, we make a decision,” Dusan says. “If he’s playing good, he makes more money and he can expand.” Enter John McEnroe.

With McEnroe on board, Raonic now has two former world No. 1s on his coaching staff and three times as many coaches as he did when he turned pro at 18. It sounds overwhelming, but all three coaches are never around the world No. 7 player together at one time. They make sure to coordinate their efforts, though. After the morning practice, Moya is talking to Piatti, who’s in Italy, via WhatsApp. The two are in constant communication with each other, and also with Raonic’s physical trainer, Dalibor Sirola. “We have to be careful with what information we give, not to confuse him,” Moya says. This ensures there aren’t too many cooks in the kitchen. Literally speaking, Raonic has just one cook on staff, a high-school buddy who makes great chicken wings.

McEnroe helped Raonic improve his net game and taught him to play with more emotion. But when it comes to sparring with umpires, Raonic says, "We have a very different way of going about it."

Now sitting in an air-conditioned suite that overlooks centre court at Aviva Centre, dressed in non-sweaty New Balance gear, Raonic’s dark eyebrows go skyward when he thinks about how many people work for him. “Two, five, eight, 10,” he says, before landing at the answer: “Thirteen people have a say in the decisions I make.”

Each has a specific role. Tennis-wise, McEnroe has improved his net game and taught him to play with more emotion, though Raonic says McEnroe-level outbursts at umpires–“Answer the question, jerk!”—aren’t coming anytime soon. “I think we have a very different way of going about it,” he says, laughing. Moya, he says, has made him more decisive on court and improved his mental game. “He’s taught me to be more relaxed between matches, to not overthink things.” It’s Piatti he spends the most time with. Raonic says Piatti has “improved the foundation of my game.”

And then there is Sirola, Raonic’s Croatian-born fitness trainer whose usual day runs from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sirola still calls Croatia home, though he travels 250 days a year with the Canadian. “This is a family,” he says. In three years, he has helped transform Raonic’s body. Those lumbering legs are punctuated by massive calves. On Raonic’s comparatively small torso, there is no evidence of anything even resembling excess. That he is a better athlete today is something Sirola can prove. Raonic wears a GPS device during practice that tracks everything—how fast he’s jumping, how quickly he changes direction, his power output, you name it. In every category, the trainer says, “he’s 30 to 40 percent better than in 2013.”

And if you ask Sirola, who is also made of brick, there is room for his client to improve. They’ve yet to find Raonic’s maximum capacity, though Sirola thinks they’re close. He sees potential in the areas of speed and reactivity on the court, and in the quick changes in direction that are key when the six-foot-five Raonic faces smaller opponents.

That’s also the biggest challenge: Raonic’s size, power and long arms are incredible assets and contribute to a 155-mph serve that’s the envy of most on the Tour, but his build is “not optimally perfect” for tennis in Sirola’s eyes. “Maybe a little bit too long in the legs. It’s not helping him to move efficiently on the court. But that’s my part: I need to move those legs faster, I need to work hard on it.” Make Raonic’s legs move faster—that’s a specific task, but Raonic does say everyone on his team was brought in for a reason. Sirola has narrowed in on his goal.

The only time today Sirola isn’t at Raonic’s side is when they’re en route to an event for the Milos Raonic Foundation, which helps kids in need. Sirola and Moya travel to the event in one SUV, while Raonic, his PR staffer Kat Bitove and his model girlfriend, fellow Canadian Danielle Knudson, travel in another vehicle. You might consider Knudson the 14th member of his team: She’s the one who weighs in on what he wears.

Raonic is sitting shotgun, in red sneakers, black jeans and a white T-shirt. “Sometimes she thinks my ideas are a little bit too radical,” he says of Knudson’s take on his fashion sense. “There’s a lot more no’s than there are yeses.” Knudson, though, is a fan of the sleeve he used to wear during matches. Sometimes she even wears it herself.

The fact that Raonic’s team doesn’t have its own name comes up during the drive. “Maybe we can brainstorm,” Raonic says. Knudson offers up “Team Milos,” in the interest of keeping it simple. “Milos’s Minions?” Raonic says, causing everyone in the vehicle to lose it, himself included. “I don’t know if that’s gonna be a hit—minions outside of the movie don’t seem very happy.” True, but it sounds great. Milos’s Minions it is.

Raonic's girlfriend, Canadian model Danielle Knudson, is a key member of his team. His father, Dusan, is the first person to whom Raonic turns for advice on investments, such as the hiring of McEnroe.

When Raonic talks about the many services that are taken care of for him—”probably never” is his response to the last time he made himself a meal, unless you’re counting a basic breakfast—you could conclude he leads a cushy life. (“He needs his siesta,” his father says.) But watch him train, watch any of the eight hours he spends either on court or in the gym on a non-tournament day, and it’s clear anything he’s not doing himself is so he can focus on the one thing he—and everyone around him—wants most.

His mother, Vesna, says it’s always been this way, that singular focus. At age six, he hit a ball for the first time at a March-break camp and came home asking if he could work with a tennis coach because “those other kids can’t hit it properly.” “You don’t know how to hit the ball either!” she told him. By age nine, he’d spend winter days before and after school hitting balls fed to him by a machine in an unheated bubble while wearing his winter jacket.

That childlike enthusiasm for the game is still there, evident in his dramatic outbursts when a ball sails long in practice, his celebrations when he wins a mini game against Moya and the way he high-fives his staff courtside during breaks. Moya, who has seen Raonic become more consistent in their eight months together, says the thing that’s surprised him most about Raonic is his professionalism and his will. “You don’t find that in most players.” But will is different from talent, and Moya knows better than most how tough it is to be on top. “We were—well, he was—a match away” from a Slam, the coach says, but “No. 1 is something else.” With Djokovic and Andy Murray ahead of the class, Moya says, “It’s about being there and waiting for the chance, and it will come.” Moya’s own chance at No. 1 came in 1999, and it lasted two weeks.

If there’s a knock on Raonic from his staff, it’s that he wants his chance to come so badly that he overdoes it. “So many times, not only me, but the whole team, we need to stop him,” Sirola says. “We say, ‘OK, for today, it’s enough.'” After his loss to Murray at Wimbledon, Raonic was told to take a week off to relax. But, as he points out, “At the end of the day, I make every binding decision.” That’s why he didn’t take that week off. He was back on the court three days later.

Photo Credits

Vaughn Ridley/Getty; Angela Lewis