The Interview: Raonic on his serve & drive to win

Milos Raonic. (Luis M. Alvarez/AP).

Kristina Rutherford chats with Canadian tennis superstar Milos Raonic.

Your serve has been called a bullet, deadly, atomic. Do you agree?
As metaphors, yes. [Laughs.] Literally, no.

Sensible answer. Do you step up to the line and think, “I’m gonna hammer this 150 mph”?
It’s a habit. When I go up there and try to hit 150, I tend to actually hit slower than when I go up there relaxed.

Take me through your serve, what you’re thinking, what you’re doing.
It’s actually hard to say because it’s something I’ve done so many times, it’s sort of automatic. I’ve always understood that if you serve really well it could be a way to finish the point. So I always step up to the line trying to get a free point, whether that be an error from my opponent or an ace. I always have a very aggressive mindset. I’ve probably hit more than 50,000 serves and I feel like that’s what’s gotten me to where I am.

Is it your No. 1 focus?
Yes, because at the end of the day it’s what’s gonna win me matches. That’s never gonna change.

What’s the key to disguise where you’re aiming?
You have to be able to hit from the same ball drop every serve, and there’s so many ways to practise that. I’ve done that numerous, numerous hours from the age of 10, making sure that it’s not visible to my opponents.

Can your serve get better?
Yes, quite a bit. I think the [big] part of the serve is the pressure I follow it up with, where it takes away the comfort of players feeling like they can hit it back. It makes them think a little bit more. Not only do they have to get a racquet on the ball, but they have to be able to do something with the return or they’ll be in trouble.

It’s been a quick ascent for you to the top 10. Does it feel that way?
I feel like I’ve settled into my place and found my comfort [zone]. When I think over the last two years, I’ve really had the chance to understand what I’m going through, what I need to do to get better, because that’s what 90 percent of my focus goes into. Where I am now is not where I wish to be. I want to be much better.

What do you need to improve?
I need to get fitter, I need to get stronger and quicker, I need to improve technically, and I need to improve mentally. I think I also need to learn how to manage things off the court better.

You’re one of the best in the world and you just listed everything. You’re a perfectionist.
Yes, and that’s dangerous. Sometimes you miss a lot of the positive things, and you can get really down on yourself. I have a team around me that tells me, “Relax, you’re on your way. Things will come, don’t rush it.” I demand a lot from myself and from the people around me. I don’t put up with half-assed efforts. I might call out my friend if I think he sleeps an hour too long in the morning. I’ll be like, “Why are you being lazy?” To me it’s about achieving your potential and not feeling like you’re wasting time. You can ask a lot of the people around me—I’m very demanding. I expect them to be as intense about my tennis on a daily basis as I am.

Let’s hear an example of you being too demanding.
Ooh, here’s a good one. I can be two minutes late but I will get pissed off at people if they’re two minutes late. That’s true.

You’ve had to control your anger on the court. How have you done that?
I’ve realized that I’ve lost a lot of matches because of it. If I wanna succeed, I gotta get rid of that flaw. I think I’ve learned it pretty much as an act of desperation.

Canadian tennis is looking as good as ever, and you’ve been called the godfather of the movement. Must be nice.
I’m honoured, I think is the best way to look at it. Canadian tennis has never really gotten much attention before; we’ve had great doubles players but we’ve really lacked on the singles side, and singles is what people tend to see more often, what kids tend to see. It’s most important to me to see that more kids want to pick up racquets–that’s the most special thing. The best way to promote the sport is to do well and to win, and fortunately I’ve been able to do so and everything else has sort of come in place following that.

Can you see the impact you’ve made, or are you too close to it?
No, I think I’ve been able to see the impact because I’m not in Canada that much. So when I do come back, you see something’s changing. Either better facilities, or more kids wanting to play, or more coverage being provided on TV, so that when I’m home I can watch tennis. I think the most endearing thing I’ve noticed is the support that I and other Canadians have gotten during home Davis Cup and Fed Cup tournaments, as well as at the Masters Series, whether it be in Toronto and Montreal.

What’s it like to play at home?
It’s amazing. Subconsciously, I’ve played well; I had my best result in 2013 on home soil. It’s nice to have that comfort and not be putting too much pressure on myself, and to be able to play well in those situations with all the attention.

What’s a moment where you really enjoyed your fame?
Stepping out on the centre court of the big events that I got to watch growing up. In tennis, there’s a lot of matches going on at the same time, but they’re only televising what’s happening on the centre court, and that’s where you aspire to be. I think those are the moments, inside the tennis fame, that stand out to me.

You also played basketball as a kid. What about tennis captured you?
The individuality is really what stands out. No dependence on anybody, no way to deflect responsibility.

You obviously have insane internal motivation. Where does that come from?
Believing I have a lot more that I can achieve. The thing I would hate myself for the most or regret the most is if I did not push myself to maximize my potential and my abilities.

You’ve said you were a lazy kid, yet you woke your dad up at 5 a.m. to hit tennis balls. That doesn’t compute.
Yeah, when I speak to people I worked with when I was young they constantly tell me they wish their students would work half as hard as I did. I was always one to get a lot more out of myself, seeing the glass as half-empty rather than half-full.

Talk about the influence of Pete Sampras.
Being my idol he gave me a direction I wanted to follow, an understanding of how effective the serve can be. I think you can see still a lot of similarities. Even to this day, whatever Pete might tell me…there are a lot of people around me who love me and have [my] best interest at heart, [but] if I hear it from Pete, it resonates a little bit more.

What sort of advice has he given you?
Champions know how to win even when they’re not playing their best.

You’ve said you’re not feeling 100 percent all the time, but you bring out the best. How?
We play 50–70 matches a year; we probably feel good at three or four of them. Every other one you’re sort of managing, whether it be emotions, physical issues, the wind, the heat, whatever. You have to learn how to put that all aside and try to get the most out of yourself.

In a tough situation, what do you tell yourself?
I focus on routine, what I know. I try not to be inventive or create something I’ve never done.

Do you pick apart the tournament bracket?
I don’t look at a tournament bracket. I will not go out of my way to look at who’s in my section. I take it one by one. I think too many guys are good nowadays even in the lower ranks that you feel like you’re always playing with your head just above the water and you’ve gotta get through those situations.

Do you have a game plan to take down, say, Rafa?
Everybody has a game plan on how to take down Rafa and Roger and Novak and all these guys. Probably the No. 2,000 guy in the world also has a game plan, but you have to execute it and that’s what makes it tough.

So what’s the game plan to take down Rafa?
My game plan, doesn’t matter who I play, is to play on my terms, to control as much as I can, to try to get control of the centre of the court, to try to dictate and make them move, to be their director rather than letting them impose their game on me.

You said your goal was to be top-10. Check! Now what?
To be the best in the world.

What would you be doing if you weren’t playing tennis?
I wish I could be posting up on LeBron James, or defending him from scoring 61 points. I don’t know how well I would do it. But I’d probably be doing something in the finance world because I would have finished my education in that department.

It’d be interesting to see your motivation for tennis in the financial world.
Yeah, I’m very competitive in everything. I hate to lose. If somebody else makes five dollars more for their clients or five cents, that would piss me off.

Do you think you’d be well-liked in the office?
Yeah, because I take other people’s feelings into consideration quite a bit, and sometimes at my own expense. But it doesn’t mean that I would let people get in my way of achieving goals.

Back to your serve. If you set up a peach on the other side of the net and served at it, would it explode?
How rotten is the peach?

It’s ripe.
Then probably, yeah.

We should try that.
What can Milos explode? I can start my own YouTube channel.

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