Milos Raonic's performance over the last week has affirmed two important points for Canadian tennis fans. One, the 21-year-old Raonic is capable of competing with the biggest and best names in the sport and two, he still has plenty to work on in terms of putting forth consistent tournament-to-tournament performances.
After an impressive showing at the Japan Open where he reached the final by knocking off Andy Murray, Raonic was upset by unseeded Marco Baghdartis of Cyprus 7-6 (4), 6-7 (5), 7-6 (3) Wednesday in the second round of the Shanghai Masters.
Though his losses to Kei Nishikori in the Japan final and now Baghdartis in Shanghai were both disappointing finishes, especially at this point in his career when expectations are high, just advancing to the final in Japan allowed Raonic to reach a career-best 14th in the ATP rankings.
It's maybe not exactly where Canadian tennis fans would like to see him at 21 years old though. After all it's easy to compare his track record at this point to where any of the ATP "Big Three" were at his age and come to the conclusion that he'll never be a top-caliber player. But that would be an unfair contrast.
Though there was a time when pro tennis players peaked at age 18 or 19, the success Andy Murray has "finally" found at age 25 should trump the point that seems to be becoming more myth than fact. As should Roger Federer's victory at Wimbledon this past spring at the age of 30.
As Damien Cox wrote in a feature in Sportsnet Magazine:
"Federer's victory in the men's final at Wimbledon this year at 30 firmly established that tennis is no country for young men. There were two teenagers in the draw, Oliver Golding of Great Britain and Bernard Tomic of Australia, and both were eliminated in the first round. Raonic soon followed and by the Round of 16, the average age of the remaining players was approaching 28."
Murray agrees with the assertion that age is no longer the factor that it once was it men's tennis.
He told the Liverpool Echo in June:
"When I first made it into the top 10 there was me, Djokovic, Nadal, who were all 18 or 19 years old.
"Now there are maybe two or three guys under 20 in the top 100. The average age of the top players is much, much older than it used to be because the game has become much more physical.
"It has changed a lot so whereas before guys were playing their best tennis when they were younger, I think it is starting to happen now that guys are playing their best when they're older."
It's easy to get overexcited or impatient with Raonic though, especially since as Cox pointed out, in 2011 he jumped 119 spots to 37th in the ATP rankings — the highest ever for a Canadian men's singles player — in just 50 days. And ever since, he's been talked about as one the biggest up-and-coming names in the sport. Other than Daniel Nestor he's arguably the biggest name in Canadian tennis history.
Though he's yet to cap his rise in the ATP ranks with an underdog achievement at one of the four Grand Slams, there's plenty of positive signs in his game right now, including the fact that he may not just be relying on his powerful serve to win matches.
In describing how Raonic managed to upset Murray in Japan Damian Cox said in his column in the Toronto Star:
He did it by demonstrating the same thing that he demonstrated at Davis Cup in Montreal last month, namely that he's a lot more than just a big server.
Murray had only lost one match since losing the Wimbledon final in July and, leading 4-1 in the third set, it sure looked like he wasn't about to add another defeat to his record. He was in full control, or so it seemed.
But Raonic charged back, breaking Murray to get back on serve, then shaking off two seemingly costly double-faults in the 12th game of the set to force a third-set tiebreak. The volley he made to win that game after saving the two match points was breathtaking, and a symbolic of his performance on the day.
This was a day, you see, that Raonic owned the net.
When Murray beat him convincingly at the U.S. Open, the Scot was able to get away with slicing back shots and drifting balls back that Raonic wouldn't attack. In Tokyo, Raonic lived at the net, repeatedly putting away volleys and overheads, and continuing to attack even when Murray passed him or forced him into errors.
The Canadian returned serve superbly, much better than he had in New York, and refused to back off the baseline, hitting his backhand more aggressively to push Murray back. Raonic had "only" 13 aces, low by his standards, and it was the rest of his game that lifted him to victory.
There's no doubt that Raonic will need to have success in a Grand Slam in order to receive more recognition in the mainstream, but right now he's shining on the smaller stage, quietly inching his way towards the ATP top 10, gaining respect from his opponents along the way. And hey, isn't that the Canadian way anyways?