The John McEnroe effect on Milos Raonic: real, or just a fun narrative?

The John McEnroe effect on Milos Raonic: real, or just a fun narrative?

WIMBLEDON – By reaching the Wimbledon men’s singles final, Milos Raonic has broken new ground for the men’s game in Canada and climbed another step up the ladder towards the pinnacle of the game.

But the main narrative here over the fortnight at the All-England Club and the weeks leading up to it has centered on the 25-year-old Canadian’s grass-court season consultant, John McEnroe.

Andy Murray has brought back former coach Ivan Lendl, but it’s still about Murray. A few years ago Roger Federer brought in Stefan Edberg – but it was still all about Federer even if the Swedish champion was given far too much credit for Federer’s return to a more attacking game in the late stages of his career. Serena Williams coach Patrick Mouratoglou discusses her on too many networks to mention, and yet it has still always been about Serena. Boris Becker has been around for Novak Djokovic’s dominant years, and yet no one can really figure out what the former Wimbledon champion even brings to the table.

But McEnroe? He’s the story, and he has probably benefited as much or more from the alliance than Raonic has.

It’s as though Raonic’s season only began in London and therefore any upgrades in his game, any improvements, are the result of McEnroe’s “influence.” Obviously.

His arrival on the scene made Raonic instantly, exponentially more interesting to the British media; the coverage has been far more extensive because of it.

The Canadian couldn’t escape a single press conference during his impressive run to the final without one, or several, questions about what McEnroe has brought to his game, how he has helped him improve. He deftly dismissed some of the pre-conceived storylines obvious in some of those questions, but he certainly didn’t give away any of his secrets.

It got to the point where he sort of ran out of ways to say it, although it never got to the point where he responded, “Wait a second. I’ve been in the top 10 for basically the last four years. I’ve been to the semi-finals here before. You CANNOT BE SERIOUS!”

Has McEnroe really had that much of an effect in a few short weeks?

We can’t objectively know; there’s no way to compare and contrast Raonic’s Wimbledon run side-by-side with an alternate universe in which their alliance never happened.

Federer, who lost to Raonic in five sets in Friday’s dramatic semi-final, isn’t buying it for a second. He says Raonic’s progression has been gradual and that, perhaps, this is just his time, the moment when the stars align.

When I played him in Brisbane, he was playing exactly like now.  When he beat me in Paris also (in late 2014), he was always looking to come in, always looking to take the big first shot. I don't see a difference him playing here. I just think he believes it more now and he's clearly evolved as a player in the last two to three years,” said Federer, who plucked coach Ivan Ljubicic from Raonic’s team when Edberg decided he couldn’t devote the weeks to him again in 2016.

“Obviously (he) makes more returns now since two to three years.  That was always going to improve.  That was not going to get worse.  From that standpoint, I think that's a big difference,” Federer added. “He's always had great focus.  Serve for serve, point for point, he's always done a tremendous job there.  I feel like since maybe a year and a half now he feels maybe a bit more comfortable coming to net.”

Raonic’s forward-thinking attack, first in evidence in that Brisbane tournament to kick off his 2016 season, was produced before his other “super-coach” consultant, Carlos Moyá, officially came on board at the Australian Open.

So the credit, if you believe that coaches deserve that much credit, goes to Riccardo Piatti, who has been in place for three years. Raonic has rarely mentioned him in press, mostly because he is rarely asked. First it was Moyá, now it’s McEnroe. But a veteran Italian tennis writer of Piatti’s generation did ask about him Friday, and the Canadian was quick to give Piatti his due.

Raonic’s game is hardly a carbon copy of McEnroe’s relentless serve-volley attack, the product of a different skill set in a far different era. So perhaps the influence is subtle, which is surprising given McEnroe’s outsized personality. If it’s anything, it’s mental, not tactical.

Between TV commitments, McEnroe managed to sneak in for a couple of sets during Raonic's comeback win vs. David Goffin in the fourth round. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
Between TV commitments, McEnroe managed to sneak in for a couple of sets during Raonic's comeback win vs. David Goffin in the fourth round. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

It’s unlikely that McEnroe is telling Raonic anything he hasn’t already heard; his childhood coach Casey Curtis more than likely told him many of the very same things – and every coach since then.

There are no new, secret ways to win tennis matches and if McEnroe had any, a high-profile player would have snapped him up for big bucks long before now. He certainly has put his hat in the ring on several occasions.

But sometimes the right person saying it, at the right time, can create a spark. And at the top of the game, where the margins are so fine and all the top players are looking for that little one per cent, it can help.

In observing the interaction inside Team McEnroe during his practice sessions, the biggest surprise was how easily McEnroe blended in, and how much he seemed to enjoy it all. And that’s not even considering the team dinners, and other private moments.

Whatever McEnroe has been saying, it’s clear that Raonic has been enjoying every moment of it. Never has he smiled and laughed as much during practices at tournaments as he has over the last few weeks.

McEnroe and Moyá, of different generations and with radically different personalities and styles, have been constantly discussing, exchanging.

You know Raonic has to get a huge kick out of the fact that he’s a big enough deal that he has not one former No. 1 and Grand Slam champion, but two of them on hand for the sole purpose of making him the best player he can be, and helping him win his first Grand Slam title. His face, when his two consultants squared off in a winner-takes-all tiebreak earlier in the tournament, was priceless.

Until now, it has been a grim, relentlessly ambitious grind for the methodical Raonic. Suddenly, it seems like fun. The Canadian’s on-court demeanour since McEnroe’s arrival is noteworthy for the amount he’s been smiling, and he has attributed that to the American’s emphasis on him enjoying the ride a little more, something he himself regrets he was unable to do.

Perhaps that, in the end, is McEnroe’s biggest contribution. He was courtside when Raonic had a grip on the Queen's Club final against Murray three weeks ago, only to let it slip. We’ll find out on Sunday if the last couple of weeks of McEnroe wisdom will contribute to a better outcome this time, on tennis' biggest stage.