Wimbledon: Milos Raonic still learning grass game

Monday, June 24, 2013

LONDON–When Milos Raonic first started to make an indelible impression on the tennis world a little more than two years ago, the thinking was that his explosive game would be perfectly suited to the rare occasions when the sport took to grass courts.

Historically, big servers have often excelled on the slippery lawn. And nobody serves bigger than Raonic these days.

So far, however, grass and Raonic haven’t clicked. In 2011, he won his opening match at Wimbledon, then fell and ripped up his hip in a second-round match. Last year, he was surprised in the second round at the All England Club by Sam Querrey of the United States.

Over the past two weeks, the 22-year-old Raonic has entered a pair of grass tourneys and been beaten in his first match both times.

“It’s more me. I’ve got to figure out my thing,” said Raonic.

In his career, the Maple Leaf Missile is 8-8 on the green stuff, a .500 record that doesn’t quite square with earlier projections.

As the best singles player in Canadian history prepares for his third Wimbledon gathering – he opens against journeyman Carlos Berlocq of Argentina on Tuesday – it remains an intriguing debate as to why Raonic hasn’t yet figured out how to be more successful on grass.

Some wonder if the injury in 2011 against Gilles Muller has made him tentative on grass. His six-foot-five frame, meanwhile, makes him naturally less adept at getting to the low balls players receive on grass, plus his tendency to get passive and play well back of the baseline is a poor grass court strategy.

Roger Federer, the defending Wimbledon champion who is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his first win among the strawberries and cream crowd, also says organizers at the All England Club and other grass facilities have intentionally slowed the courts, hurting powerful servers.

“Now you can just play the same game on clay, on grass, on hard courts. That was not really the idea about having different surfaces in the first place,” said Federer on Sunday.

The other factor for Raonic, of course, is that he split with coach Galo Blanco in May and recently hired Croatian Ivan Ljubicic as his new coach. Since firing Blanco, Raonic has a spotty 2-4 record.

All in all, it’s not a promising Wimbledon scenario for Raonic. That said, his struggles this year have been slightly exaggerated – he does have one ATP title, has won 20 of 31 matches and is a sparkling 4-0 in Davis Cup singles competition, pushing Canada to the world semis in September against Serbia – and his draw at Wimbledon is favourable.

If he can make the turf his friend, that is.

Raonic is joined by two other Canadian men, Vasek Pospisil and Jesse Levine, in the single’s draw, while on the women’s side 19-year-old Eugenie Bouchard of Montreal plays her first match in the main women’s draw on Monday.

The Canadians, however, are anything but the main focus of attention as The Championships open in southwest London.

On the men’s side, the Big Four – Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic – are all competing in the same event for the first time since Wimbledon last year.

Even then, Nadal was seriously compromised by a knee problem and was stunned in the second round by unseeded Lukas Rosol. Nadal won his eighth French Open a few weeks ago and is riding a 22-match winning streak, but painful memories remain.

“That experience for me last year was too much,” said Nadal, actually the fifth seed this year. “I suffer too much.

“Wimbledon … was not a good decision for me.”

Djokovic, No. 1 for 87 straight weeks, is the favourite and has an excellent draw. Murray lost an emotional four-set final to Federer last year to extend Britain’s Wimbledon drought to 76 years, but then won Olympic gold later in the summer on the same courts.

“I went for it and lost the match kind of on my terms,” said Murray of last year’s Wimbledon defeat at the hands of Federer.

“I felt I didn’t just sort of sit back and wait. I think that’s maybe why I managed to recover from that defeat well.”

Toronto Star - Damian Cox, Sports Reporter

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