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Canadian Raonic leads charge of 'Occasionally Magnificent Seven'

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MIlos Raonic won his third straight title in San Jose in the tournament's final edition in the Bay Area.

The so-called "next generation" in men's tennis presents a fascinating dynamic. It's not so much a revolution as a series of shock waves, shattering consensus beliefs and opening windows for debate.

By most accounts, as identified two years ago, this group includes Milos Raonic, Bernard Tomic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Richard Berankis and Ryan Harrison. The Occasionally Magnificent Seven.

When it comes to significant future impact in Grand Slam events, my money's on Raonic, and that's hardly a radical stance. But we're hardly reminded of the young John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg or Rafael Nadal -- absolute sure things in their teenage years -- with any of these guys. We must grow accustomed to the pratfalls.

As I witnessed Raonic win the San Jose tournament for the third straight year, I heard nothing but glowing reports from his fellow players. Tommy Haas insisted that if you assembled all of the top players in that venue -- intimate, indoors, not a single trace of the elements -- he could win the whole thing.

"He's one of those guys who's not just running around the court, waiting for the other guy to make mistakes," said Haas after a straight-set loss to Raonic in the final. "He's really got the firepower."

Raonic was awe-inspiring that day. He cranked a 148-mph ace in his first service game. In the next, he threw a changeup -- a wicked kick-serve at 114 mph -- that exploded past Haas for another ace.

"I think I can hit all four serves," Raonic, 22, said later, referring to flat and sliced deliveries from the ad and deuce courts. "I tend to go slower, wide on the deuce and down the T on the ad, just because of the slice effect."

It was all tremendously impressive, everyone picking Raonic as a likely finalist -- or better -- at the upcoming Memphis tournament. Whereupon he lost in the first round to Jack Sock, the talented but slumping and 130th-ranked American.

That turned out to be Nishikori's tournament, the third tour title for the dashing all-court wizard from Japan. And really, this "next" generation is performing well. Dimitrov had an excellent run at Rotterdam before falling to Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals, and he reached the Brisbane final before colliding with Andy Murray. It took Murray's presence to eliminate Berankis, the 22-year-old Lithuanian, in the Australian Open's round of 32.

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Tomic and Dolgopolov are the tour's enigmatic young geniuses, blending mind-blowing displays with baffling setbacks, every match a must-see affair. Harrison has become the group's underachiever, as his results over the past two years indicate, although nobody's giving up on him quite yet.

Of them all, Raonic's edge is in reputation and potential. Roger Federer would almost certainly agree, having been taken to the third-set brink in three meetings last year: 6-4 at Indian Wells, 7-6 at Madrid and 7-6 at Halle. As he lamented two ill-timed forehand errors in that Madrid tiebreaker, Raonic said, "I stepped on the court believing I could win, and I left the court knowing I could have won."

Clearly, Raonic is making a stronger move toward the elite than his contemporaries. Aside from playing Federer straight-up, he beat Murray in last year's Shanghai semifinals and staged an epic battle against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Olympics, saving three match points before finally going down 6-3, 3-6, 25-23 in a match lasting nearly four hours.

A Canadian citizen who was born in Montenegro, Raonic embraces the Serbian language.

"Growing up, my parents would never talk to me in English, outside of when it was related to school," he told reporters last year. And when he's around Novak Djokovic, "We speak in Serbian," he said. "We get along amazing."

Among those who know his parents (Raonic still lives at home, although he's about to move into his own place), it's somewhat surprising the youngster became an athlete. The mother and father are engineers, and both of their fathers were professors. Neither his sister nor brother are noteworthy athletes, and suddenly here comes this 6-foot-5 flamethrower from the family. He grew up idolizing Pete Sampras and watching tapes of his matches so obsessively, he was continually amazed by points he'd watched countless times. There's a bit of Sampras in his languid on-court gait, this calm-looking fellow suddenly erupting into action, and Federer can speak to his budding greatness.

The first time the two faced off, at Indian Wells, "I was hoping maybe he's not that good," Federer said. "I got the answer early on (losing the first set) that he is very good. Finally, being on the court with him 40 minutes, it gave me a chance to see how his serve works, what is his favorite serve, what is his pattern."

As Raonic said in San Jose, his future as an elite player will depend not strictly on the serve, but "what I back it up with. I feel like I've come a long way with my return game and my volleying. And I've tried to work very hard at sustaining my intensity. If I can carry that sort of flat line of high-level play against the top guys, that's going to help me.

"Before, I had belief that I could win any match, but I didn't demand myself to win. I didn't feel it was absolutely necessary. Now I focus on the necessity of winning, and how to get there, having that mentality. Knowing how to work with my body so I don't have heavy feet, a slow arm, just dealing with those situations. That's what the top guys do."

Nostalgia was a prevailing theme throughout the San Jose event, the last stop on a Northern California tournament that dated back to the 19th century. Raonic's string of three consecutive titles had been matched only by Don Budge and Tony Trabert in the modern era, and that's exclusive company. It remains to be seen if he can become a player of that magnitude. But if anyone scales the heights among the Occasionally Magnificent Seven, here's a bet on the Serbian-speaking Montenegran from Toronto.

Bruce Jenkins is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. You can e-mail him at bjenkins@sfchronicle.com.

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