"Upside" has proven a cruel millstone on the professional tennis circuit over the past decade, where the defining trend has been the booming value of experience. The next generation of players has fought year after year to encroach on the elite, only to cede the spotlight at the biggest events to familiar names whose play has only responded to age with renewed vigor. Nowhere is this more evident than on the men's tour, once the terrain of early-blooming prodigies like Boris Becker, Mats Wilander and Pete Sampras.
When Roger Federer and Serena Williams captured the Wimbledon titles in July, it marked just the third time in the Open era (and first since 1975) that both champions at the same major were past 30 years old, a milestone that used to mean past one's prime. Consider the average age of the 16 men who survived the first week of this year's United States Open: 26.4. The combination of baseline power, improved competition and stress that comes with heightened sponsorship, prize money and international coverage has made the wunderkind an endangered species.
All this makes Milos Raonic something of an anomaly. The 21-year-old Canadian was seeded 15th at this year's Open, yet was the joint sixth betting favorite entering the tournament according to British oddsmaker William Hill -- this despite having never won a match at Flushing Meadows. Such is the buzz surrounding Raonic, widely touted as one of the next big stars of tennis, the most promising of a next wave that includes Bernard Tomic, Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov and Alexandr Dolgopolov, fancied as a superstar-in-waiting who will not just compete for but win multiple majors. "Do something big in tennis," as John McEnroe has put it.
And while Raonic came up short in Monday's bid for a first Grand Slam quarterfinal, falling 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 to Olympic gold medalist and third seed Andy Murray, there was plenty of evidence to support why the hype has merit.
A virtual unknown when the 2011 season began, Raonic is one of the fastest rising players in recent tour history. As a toddler, he and his family moved from war-torn Yugoslavia to Ontario, where he became a citizen. After starting last season ranked 394th in the world, the Thunder from Thornhill this week became the first Canadian since 1988 to make it to the fourth round of the U.S. Open.
The foundation is a serve that might be the best in the game already, struck with bad intentions from atop his 6-foot-5 frame and clocking with consistency in the 130- to 140-m.p.h. range. It sounded like a gunshot on mid-sized Court 13, where Raonic struggled in his first-round match against 46th-ranked Santiago Giraldo -- his return game and a rash of double faults conspiring against him -- but survived in five sets for his first U.S. Open victory. Yet he picked up steam in straight-sets wins over Paul-Henri Mathieu and James Blake. So violent was Raonic's kick serve in Saturday's meeting with Blake on the intimate Grandstand court that one of his 137-m.p.h. offerings caromed into the stands and struck a female fan on the shoulder. (She was OK.) Entering Monday's match with Murray, Raonic was already just the second player in history to record 30 or more aces in multiple matches at the same U.S. Open.
He moves at a deliberate, languid pace that evokes Sampras, his tennis idol, exuding the American's poker-face composure. Same for the workmanlike confidence. "Playing my game and playing on my terms as much as possible," were Raonic's last words in the tunnel before emerging onto Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time at 7:36 p.m. amid a faint mist and the threat of downpour, remnants of Hurricane Isaac that never quite arrived -- not unlike Raonic's inevitable major breakthrough.
Monday's match presented a unique subtext: the game's best server, perhaps, versus the game's best returner. Murray was looking for payback after Raonic upset him in the quarterfinals at a tournament in Barcelona earlier this year. That match took place on clay, not the hard courts that favor Murray's all-around game. A win like that "humanizes them quite a bit," Raonic had said after that match of the tour's Big Four.
Yet Murray delivered a lesson on Monday in just how superhuman today's elite are, and lay bare just how far Raonic has to go.
Amid easy conditions on Ashe, Raonic fired off six aces in his first three service games, typically with Murray stationed as much as 10 feet behind the baseline. Yet as the match progressed, Murray denied the quick points and games his young challenger craved, extending rallies when possible and confounding Raonic with his variety -- an exquisite diet of slices, spins and drop shots. Raonic's fearlessness with his second serve, historically an advantage, betrayed him at crucial times, as when he twice double-faulted in the service break that cost him the opening set. From there, the errors mounted and frustration built.
"I tried everything," lamented Raonic afterward. "I tried three different ways. I tried playing back, playing high to him, I tried coming in a lot. Everything really. [He] didn't have solutions all the time, but he would put it together for a game."
Unlike Tomic, his contemporary who folded like a chair when down two sets against Andy Roddick on Friday, Raonic showed heart and competitive fire till the end that belied his placid demeanor, bouncing on his heels like a prizefighter and showing the kind of positive body language Murray seemed allergic to as recently as last year. Serving at 4-4 in the second and trailing 0-30, Raonic uncorked his 100th ace of the tournament to save a crucial hold. These strides are noteworthy. After a particularly gutting loss in Johannesburg last year, Raonic had all but admitted his spirit was breakable.
What's most encouraging for Raonic is he didn't underwhelm in a potential breakthrough match as much as Murray excelled. Though unable to force a break-point chance against Murray's serve, Raonic had a number of chances to apply pressure. Sometimes he misfired -- three missed overhand smashes will frequent his R.E.M. sleep the next few weeks -- while other times Murray conjured the magic forged through the countless battles that have enabled him to penetrate the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic triumvirate over the past year. It was as comprehensive a match as Murray's played, recent landmark triumphs over Djokovic and Federer at last month's Olympics inclusive.
"When I did get far ahead on critical moments, quite a few moments, he just did something I really have no answer for," Raonic explained. "Something I haven't really experienced."
When a backhand forced error cost Raonic the match after exactly two hours, the players met at the net and Murray apologized, saying he "got lucky a few times," later confessing the slower conditions on Ashe might not have benefitted the young Canadian.
"I said, 'Don't be sorry, it was amazing,'" Raonic recalled.
Without doubt, Raonic is a work is progress. The fitness is a question, as Monday made clear. And it's a minor miracle that a player with such a modest return game -- he won just nine points on Murray's serve during the first two sets -- has made it to No. 16 in the world. To approach the groundstrokes and volleys of a Sampras will take years of work. But it's apparent enough Raonic's first match on Ashe won't be his last.
"He's a very, very good player already," Murray said. "He's going to get better. I'm sure he'll learn from matches like tonight, so next time I play against him, it will be much tougher."