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Raonic puts the grass demons behind him

by Alix Ramsay
Tuesday 1 July 2014

Keep this to yourselves, but Milos Raonic is looking rather good. While all the attention is focused on the usual suspects – Messrs Murray, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer – Canada’s big man is tiptoeing towards the sharp end of the competition. And he really is looking rather good.

He reached his second Grand Slam quarter-final in a month – and only the second of his career – by squashing the challenge of Kei Nishikori 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(4), 6-3 on No.3 Court. While all the oohs and ahhs were echoing around Centre Court – Maria Sharapova was going down in flames – Raonic was quietly, powerfully and confidently doing what he does best: serving like a cannon and welting his forehand as if his life depended upon it. And he was on his way to the last eight.

Unlike some of the big fellas with huge serves, the Isners, the Querreys and the like, Raonic actually likes Wimbledon. It is not that the others have anything against the All England Club, it is just that they cannot get the hang of moving on the green stuff beneath their size 15s. Raonic, though, took one look at the beautifully manicured courts of SW19 and knew that he had a chance of doing well here. He was young at the time and full of ambition.

But then, just when he was ready to show the world what he was made of, he slipped and fell while playing Gilles Muller in the second round three years ago. The fall wrecked his hip and for the next two years, he did not trust the grass courts – they may not bite but a chap can most certainly do himself a hurt out there. With that though firmly planted in his subconscious, he could not do himself justice in SW19 and until this year, he won only two more matches around these parts.

But this year, the tall Canadian is a different man. Last summer, he hired the intelligent, charming and hugely experienced Ivan Ljubicic as his coach. Then at the start of this year, and with the backing and encouragement of Ljubicic, he added Riccardo Piatti, Ljubicic’s former coach, to his team. The old friends form a tight-knit little combo and have shown their charge how to make the most of his obvious talents.

A serious minded soul who needs to find a way to let his remarkably coiffured hair down, Raonic has tried to create a home-away-from home in Wimbledon Village. Like many of the players, he has rented a house just a few minutes away from the club and has put up his whole team there. His mum and dad have flown over from Canada to be a part of the experience – and do the cooking; he likes his home comforts does Milos – while his two coaches can talk tennis to him until the cows come home. Happy, relaxed and, at last, confident that the grass courts will not hurt him, he is playing like a man who knows he can do some damage to the draw here.

Against Nishikori, he began quietly. He had never beaten the talented Japanese, his peer and rival for a spot in the world’s top 10 (the two men have been playing musical chairs with the No.9 spot for the past couple of months) so when the nimble and efficient Nishikori broke in the opening game and sprinted to a one set lead, Raonic’s shoulders slumped. At 6ft 5in, he has pretty big shoulders and when they slump, they tend to stay slumped. But not on Tuesday.

Holding tight to his belief in the game plan – play to your own strengths and not your opponent’s; it sounds simple but a lot of players struggle to do it – he started again. He kept his serve safe (just three points dropped on the first serve in the second set), he leant every ounce of his 198lbs into his ground strokes and, just for a bit of variety, he showed a hitherto hidden touch around the net.

In all, he thumped down 35 aces and after that nightmare of an opening game when he staved off five break points but cracked on the sixth, he only faced one more break point – and saved it, natch. In between times, he was pushing Nishikori around, out-muscling and out-thinking him. And he was through to the quarter-finals.

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