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Raonic, youngest ATP champ since '08, penning promising opening act


The Milos Raonic story -- which gained serious momentum Sunday when the 20-year-old Canadian defeated ninth-ranked Fernando Verdasco in San Jose, Calif., for his first ATP title, and could pick up even more steam Wednesday if he beats the Spaniard again in the first round of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis, Tenn. -- seems straight out of a CBC production meeting, doesn't it? You imagine the straight-to-TV movie pitch going something like this:

OK, so you've got this guy, real big (6-foot-5, 198 pounds), real Type-A who's constantly wrestling with his temper. His game's explosive, too -- especially his serve, which he can hit for aboot, 150 m.p.h. Picture Sampras', except with contrails. (Hey, we could even CGI those in!) He takes his lumps his first few years on tour, hooks up with a former Spanish pro whose work ethic outstripped his talent, and moves to Spain to be broken down and rebuilt into a champion. (Maybe Arcade Fire could score that montage, eh?) Fast-forward to his eighth ATP event and, get this, he not only beats Spain's third-best player in straights to claim the homeland's first ATP title since 1995 -- of course we'd put him four set points behind in the first frame to build a little tension -- but the kid clinches inside a hockey arena in San Jose (cuz Anaheim would be too cliché, right?) and takes home a hockey sweater and a bottle maple syrup as part of his winnings. For irony's sake, SAP could even sponsor! "The Mighty Canuck," we could call it!

You can totally hear an exec interjecting, Can we get Michael Cera for the lead? One would hope another would follow up with, Can we shoot on location, in Spain and Australia? Because to truly understand Raonic's swift rise -- his breakthrough victory at last week's SAP Open lifted him 25 spots in the rankings to a career-high 59th -- you have to go back about 6,000 miles to the northern Spanish town of Bilbao, then a few thousand more miles to Melbourne, Australia, for a glimpse at how this sudden sensation slowly built up the composure that has served him so well early season on the hardcourt circuit.

A week before Christmas, Raonic traveled to the heart of Basque Country to play Nicolas Almagro, another top-flight Spaniard, in an exhibition match; Raonic's new coach, Galo Blanco, figured it would be a good tune up. After playing the first two sets to a draw Raonic lost the third 7-6 and, to hear Blanco tell it, promptly blew his stack. "He was completely mad," Blanco told me during last month's Australian Open. "I told him, 'F---, it's an exhibition match!'"

In those first few months working with Raonic, Blanco was constantly grappling with the young Canadian's mercurial on-court temperament -- which, at times, seemed a better casting for the movie Sybil than an audition for the top 100. When Raonic was rolling, he was the picture of poise. "But when things were going bad he can kill, I don't know, the ball kid, the linemen, whatever," said Blanco, who was actually encouraged by the playing strides Raonic made in that losing effort -- not that his charge much cared hear about that. "I couldn't tell him one word!" Still, Blanco was able to get this message across: This is exactly the kind of situation where you have to control yourself. Learn from your disappointments, and you'll become a better player when there's real money on the line. "It took me four years to understand how to do that," Blanco cracked. "But Milos got it and started to change."

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It wasn't an overnight transformation. Raonic had a slight relapse while qualifying for the Australian Open. Blanco said Raonic's attitude and play in his third-round qualifying match against Slovakia's Andrej Martin -- a 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 comeback that got him into the main draw -- was dreadful. "He was so tired, he wanted to win so badly," said Blanco, who drew even more encouragement from this match -- this time because of the maturity Raonic showed in victory. "When he came off on the court he apologized and said, 'OK, Galo, believe me next time I'm gonna try to do better.'"

Results over the next few weeks were mixed. Raonic coolly stormed through the Australian Open draw, losing to yet another Spaniard, David Ferrer, in the fourth round. At his next tournament, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Raonic was among the last 16, but was set back yet again when he resurrected his negative attitude in defeat. A frustrated Blanco threatened to stay behind for the trip to San Jose if Raonic couldn't harness his emotions.

In the end both made it to Silicon Valley without killing each other. There, Raonic was still simmering, but this was a different kind of hot. A wild-card entrant, he paced the field in aces (58) and serve speed (149 m.p.h.) and didn't drop a set en route to the final. Against Verdasco, the defending champion, Raonic kept his cool while fighting from four set points down in the first-set tiebreaker and held his nerve in the next frame while Verdasco unraveled into a racket-spiking, monologuing mess. On match point, just as Raonic struck the icing serve, a fan cried out from the stands, and a spooked Verdasco netted a forehand return. The crowd, expecting a let, murmured at first, then roared when the two men shook hands at net. (Verdasco did not petition chair umpire Steve Ullrich for a replay.) Along with the sweater and syrup, Raonic, the ATP's youngest champion since Croatia's Marin Cilic won at New Haven in 2008, claimed a $92,000 check.

Could there be even greater riches on the horizon for Raonic? "Nobody knows the future, but I think he can be top 20 very soon," Verdasco told reporters afterward. "But there are a lot of guys who can return serve well, and they are not going to give him the top 20 for free."

Don't expect Verdasco to concede anything in Wednesday's rematch -- or Blanco to sign off on this boy-beats-world script either. There is still much work to be done, he said, especially with the clay court season less than two months away. "The challenge for him when we get into that will be not [necessarily] to win matches, but to try to improve, to try to learn," Blanco said.

As for the rest of us, managing expectations will be key. Andy Murray won his first career title in San Jose in 2006, and he remains a supporting player with respect to the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic triumvirate. 2009 U.S. Open winner Juan Martin del Porto, who saw his '10 season wiped out by a devastating wrist injury, is just starting to write his own redemption story. (He lost to Verdasco in the San Jose semis.) Eight years ago a 21-year-old Andy Roddick captivated us Yanks with his booming serve and, well, we all know how that movie ends. (He got the girl, but no more Slam trophies.)

No need to overhype The Mighty Canuck just yet. Remember: this is just the pitch, not the full script. Only the kid can decide how the rest of his story unfolds.