He sat up and sighed, silent for about 15 seconds before answering. He had rattled off honest responses before. His serve? It’s intimidating. His confidence? It’s high. But his dark, slicked down hair?
“I try to make it special, not just for myself but for the viewers as well,” Raonic finally quipped.
The 23-year-old Canadian is tough to stump. He has been even tougher to beat this week at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center. He entered the ATP event ranked No. 7 and has yet to drop a set, earning a spot in Sunday’s men’s final with a 6-4, 7-5 win over American Donald Young on Saturday. Raonic will play fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil, who beat Richard Gasquet, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 7-5, in the other semifinal.
“I’m able to solve a lot more things on my own,” Raonic said. “It’s made me a much better player. It’s helped keep me a lot more calm and panic-free on the court.”
When Young seemed on the verge of a break, Raonic’s powerful serve would close that door, touching 140 mph several times. Young said playing Raonic “is like Monopoly. He has a bunch of get-out-of-jail-free cards.”
Raonic used to lean on his former coach for hints throughout a match. Since he began working with his new coach, former top player Ivan Ljubicic, he has become more self-reliant. He now gets little feedback during matches.
But Ljubicic keeps a notebook filled with items to discuss with Raonic afterward, trying to learn from both wins and losses. They watch other matches together, discussing certain situations in case they should arise when he is on the court.
When he had a 5-4 edge in the first set against Young, Raonic played more aggressively, chasing balls he wouldn’t earlier in the set, flipping the switch he needed to win when it mattered. Young started to show his frustration when Raonic broke him; Raonic maintained a poker face.
Raonic can be robotic with his thinking. Even in media interviews, he answers questions with a straight “yes” or “no” before explaining. Sometimes he finds humor in being literal. Asked about countryman Pospisil’s “rosy glow” since he won the Wimbledon men’s doubles title, Raonic deadpanned, “I did not check out his complexion.”
“I’m the son of two engineers, so everything is a numbers and calculation game,” Raonic said.
Raonic’s father would schedule time for him against a ball machine at 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., off-peak times that were cheaper.
Raonic has kept a close eye on Young’s career. Only a year younger than Young, Raonic heard the constant praise for the up-and-coming American when they were teenagers. When Young became the youngest junior to be ranked No. 1 at the end of a year, Raonic wasn’t yet on the radar. Young admitted to knowing little about Raonic at that point. But as Young’s career sank, Raonic began to rise in the ranks.
He went from outside of the top 150 to No. 37 in two months at the start of 2011. At that point, he thought to himself, “I could do much better than this.”
“I sort of didn’t believe. There were many points where I’d say, ‘I’d be happy to be a top-50 player,’ ” Raonic said. “Things are obviously very different right now. I had to learn a lot about myself.”
Raonic now carries himself with an air of confidence. He talks about how he knows that if he takes care of his serve, he eventually will get a mental edge on his opponent. He took a not-so-subtle shot at Roger Federer, who beat him in the Wimbledon semifinals, when he said earlier in the week that there’s an opening in the rankings outside of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
“He is a really, really motivated person,” Ljubicic said. “Sometimes, we need to calm him down to try to make it a little more relaxing for him. He’s really, really determined to be on top of the world, and sometimes he wants it to happen tomorrow.”
Raonic has learned not to be so hard on himself. He tended to be negative throughout a practice when it wasn’t going his way, but he finally realized that if he’s getting through in his matches, who cares how he plays in practice? He unwound after his match against Young, playing Jenga in the players’ lounge.
But he won’t apologize for his hunger and his confidence. Asked whether he would rather be known as a rising star or a top-10 player, Raonic quickly had an answer.
“I just want to get rid of those two tags,” Raonic said. “Maybe I’ll have a different tag.”
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