Commentary

Meet massive-hitting Milos Raonic

Updated: February 14, 2011, 2:41 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

The 20-year-old Canadian trailed defending SAP Open champion Fernando Verdasco 6-2 in Sunday night's first-set tiebreaker. With four set points against him, it was a logical time to start focusing on the second set, right?

Right?

Instead, baby-faced Milos Raonic -- his monstrous serve overwhelming the world No. 9 -- won six straight points and, ultimately, the match, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5). The taut championship match saw zero breaks of serve and only one break point. One Raonic serve was clocked at 149 miles per hour.

Verdasco complained that a fan yelled as he hit Raonic's final 138 mph offering into the net, but chair umpire Steve Ullrich declined to replay the point.

What was the difference?

"His serve," Verdasco said, shrugging, in an on-the-court interview. "Easy."

Raonic, at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, appears to be the next big thing in tennis. He was ranked No. 156 at the beginning of the season, failed to qualify in India, then took off. He was a revelation at the Australian Open, qualifying his way into the main draw, then beating No. 10 seed Mikhail Youzhny and No. 22 seed Michael Llodra to reach the fourth round.

Raonic, who was born in Montenegro but left with his family after war came to the country in 1994, plays under the Canadian flag. In his seventh match in Melbourne, he won the first set against No. 7-ranked David Ferrer but then hit the wall. Raonic would have been the first Canadian man in history to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam singles event, but it appears that day will soon come. His first ATP title came in only his eighth event and made him the first Canadian man to win a title in 13 years.

"We are witnessing the birth of a star here," a breathless Justin Gimelstob said toward the end of the Tennis Channel telecast.

Analyst Todd Martin predicted that Raonic could soon break into the top 20 and, perhaps, reach the top 10 by year's end.

Raonic, who is now ranked No. 59, is 8-2 in ATP matches this year, but factoring in his qualifying record, he has won 16 of 19. Raonic is second among ATP ace leaders with 174, only four behind Ivo Karlovic.

"A lot of things have come quickly," Raonic said. "I'm happy about it and hope I can keep it going more than six weeks."

In a twist of the draw, he'll play Verdasco again on Wednesday in a first-round match in Memphis.

ESPN.com caught up with Raonic last week in San Jose after his 6-2, 7-6 (4) second-round victory over James Blake. He was thoughtful and well-spoken and, despite his age, seemed ready to embrace stardom.

ESPN.com: You competed mostly in ITF and Challenger events last year. When did you begin to realize you could play with the elite on the ATP World Tour?

Milos Raonic: I knew I could always play well with them, but I found some consistency in my results late in the year in Tokyo and Malaysia. [Raonic beat No. 31-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky in Kuala Lumpur.] Against Stakhovsky, I was nearly down a couple of match points, but I was serving really well. This sort of got the wheel turning in the right direction. Everything got better, especially my confidence. You need that coming up. It's hard to beat the guys ahead of you if you don't believe in yourself.

ESPN.com: You went from No. 156 to No. 84 after the Australian Open, the biggest jump into the top 100 by anyone. How, exactly, did that happen?

Milos Raonic: Nothing changed really. Things came together. I took six weeks in the offseason to prepare, a long time for me. I was in Spain with my coach [former ATP player Galo Blanco]. It was very rigorous, between fitness workouts and tennis. We focused mostly on my backhand and getting better movement -- that was probably the biggest thing. We also worked on getting a better percentage of first serves in and strengthening my second serve.

ESPN.com: Despite playing only four rounds, you led all men at the Australian Open with 91 aces. James Blake compared it to the huge serves of John Isner and Ivo Karlovic. You're only 20. Can your serve get bigger -- and better?

[+] EnlargeRaonic
AP Photo/Paul SakumaCan Milos Raonic crack the top 10 by the end of the year?

Milos Raonic: I am not sure about bigger [laughing] -- I don't know how good that is for the shoulder. I believe I can improve the percentages and the placement, too. The biggest areas I need to work on are the mental and the movement.

ESPN.com: You got to meet your idol, Pete Sampras, in San Jose. What was that like?

Milos Raonic: It was a really surreal moment for myself. Unbelievable, really. It was nice to connect the man to the game that I watched for so many hours. I taped most of his matches and watched them over and over again. If he was playing in Melbourne, my parents would let me stay up. Sampras was the person to study, the model to learn from. It's something else meeting someone you've always looked up to. Seeing that respect from him. [Sampras looked small.] That happens to a lot of people standing next to me. In my mind, he's still a pretty big guy.

ESPN.com: What are your short-term and long-term goals?

Milos Raonic: Short-term would be to finish in top 50 -- I'm actually not too far from it. I try to never look too directly at the rankings. If I continue to play at this level, the ranking will come. Long-term, I want to be in the top 10, I want to win titles. It would mean a lot of me [to reach a major quarterfinal]. It would mean respect for the sport in Canada, showing the kids they can do it, too. We can't have Canadians saying, 'Tennis is not a sport; let's go to hockey.'

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.