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Milos Raonic in need of a Plan B

Milos Raonic serves on Centre Court
by Kate Battersby
Saturday 5 July 2014

First, the good news for Milos Raonic. By making the last four at Wimbledon 2014, he became the first Canadian man to reach a Grand Slam semi-final in 106 years.

It is his best Grand Slam result to date, exceeding the quarter-final mark he set only a month ago at Roland Garros (where he was correspondingly the first Canadian man in 106 years to reach the last eight of a Slam), and he will rise to a new career-high ranking of No.6 come Monday. Sounds great – and it is... up to a point.

Unfortunately the bad news is neon-lit. Raonic is in serious need of a Plan B.

Neither his Wimbledon semi-final against Roger Federer nor his French Open quarter-final against Novak Djokovic caught fire. There was always a lurking feeling that it was just a matter of time before the 23-year-old’s limitations and his opponents’ versatility would add up to the only possible conclusion. Raonic prospers against many players, but when facing competitors at the level of Djokovic or Federer, he comes up short. As long as they do not inexplicably disappear into some error-strewn parallel universe, they have only to bide their time. On the evidence of matches such as these, Raonic’s battering-ram tactics can only take him so far. His potential to pierce the top three, and put himself in line for Grand Slam titles, is limited for as long as his game hinges entirely on the heavy artillery serve. After all, this Wimbledon semi-final extended his losing streak against top-four opposition to eight matches.

 “He needs to develop an X-factor other than his serve which will see him upset the top players,” says the 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash. “We will see a lot more from him and he is only young. But he was expressionless [against Federer]. He needed to get fired up and show some emotion.”

It is true that watching Raonic can be uninvolving. The relentless reliance on serve, somewhat lugubrious stride between points and his habitually unreadable expression all contribute – even his perfectly coiffed quiff appears impervious to the exertions of the game. Only a year ago a leading British broadcaster captioned him as “Rilos Maonic”. He has achieved enough since then to make a repeat of such anonymity unlikely, but John McEnroe declares that Raonic’s outward demeanour is something which must be consciously worked on.

 “It’s sometimes hard for fans to get behind him,” said the three-time Wimbledon champion. “They know he has this incredible serve, but how much does this guy want it? They want to see passion, like with Nadal or Djokovic wearing their hearts on their sleeves.”

 Two-time Wimbledon champion Jimmy Connors sees a little more to it.

"When Roger hits the ball he knows it will be good but when Milos hits the ball he hopes it will be good,” explained Connors. “I would like to see him start taking a bigger chance on his opponent's second serves and step in early and give it a go. He has had a great tournament but he has only one way to win. Still, this semi-final experience will serve him well down the road."

 Yet in his press conference after the match, Raonic referred only to his need to “handle the situation better next time”. There was no reference to developing any weapon other than experience. Perhaps he and coach Ivan Ljubicic, the former world No.3, will get round to such ideas in time. They surely cannot be experiencing Andy Murray-style bewilderment about what to do next. The overwhelming babble of voices pointing out the necessity of something new in Raonic’s arsenal is too loud to be going unheard.

“What’s the most important thing I learned this tournament?” mused Raonic. “How to deal with the situation is what I’ll most focus on. I believe I can put myself in this situation again, and the worst part would be to have the same feeling afterwards. I know I can do much better.”

Raonic’s steady progression up the rankings ladder has been all about consistent Grand Slam performances, rather than a single standout showing on one surface. Once again here he has taken a step into uncharted territory by going further. But his progression to the world No.6 spot has an entirely different feel to that of his compatriot Eugenie Bouchard, who will occupy the respective ranking if she wins the women’s title and sit one slot lower if Petra Kvitova defeats her. Bouchard is unmistakeably on the rise to great things, whereas without more weapons Raonic is surely nearing the limit of his potential.

“The last two weeks have been in a lot of ways very successful,” he said. “If you asked me before the event started if I would sign on the dotted line to make the semis here, yes, I would have. But when you actually get to this point, it’s just the greed of human nature that you want so much more. You feel it in front of you and you want to grab it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Indeed. This is the minimum requirement in tennis. His desire is not in doubt, nor his work ethic. But his ideas must surely broaden if he is to achieve a better outcome another time.

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