Guest Mailbag: Raonic on his game, tough matchups and more

Wednesday April 16th, 2014

Milos Raonic, the first Canadian in the ATP top 10, says his work with coach Ivan Ljubicic is paying off.
Jean Christophe Magnenet/Getty Images

This week, Jon Wertheim has handed the keys to the tennis mailbag to Milos Raonic, who rallied to beat Lu Yen-Hsun 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-1 on Wednesday to advance to the third round of the Monte Carlo Masters. The 23-year-old is ranked a career-high-tying No. 10 this week, and last August he became the first Canadian man to crack the top 10. Raonic, who missed all of February with an ankle injury, is 9-3 this year, including quarterfinal appearances at both the BNP Paribas Open and Sony Open.

When he's not on the court, Raonic loves to tweet @milosraonic and provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of life on tour through his Instagram feed. In 2012, he started The Milos Raonic Foundation, which focuses on disadvantaged children.

Hi, Milos! What do you think is the key to staying in the top 10? Also, I'm curious to know your thoughts, as a rising young player, on the significant increase in the average age of the top players in recent years. Later retirement ages in any industry typically result in it being more difficult for young people to climb the ladder. Do you feel it's helped or hurt you that many tennis players are playing well, well into their 30s? Finally, who out of the so-called Big Four (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray) is the toughest matchup for you, and why? Thanks for your response. I'm a big fan!
-- Helen, Kuala Lumpur

Constant improvement will help keep me in the top 10. The most common thing you see among the top guys is that they are always getting better and adapting to situations. I could get technical with that statement, but I believe the best description is "keep improving" in every area you can. I have a great coaching staff that helps me identify those areas, and we put in the work every day. However, gaining experience in difficult match situations and getting comfortable in those situations I have yet to face will only make me better.

It is definitely more difficult for tennis players to break through at a younger age right now, because guys are playing longer and playing at a higher level longer. This is due to improvements in fitness regimens and an increase in professionalism on and off the court. One example of this is the pattern of players bringing trainers, dedicated physios, nutritionists and others into their core team.

Another big part is that players ranked Nos. 15-75 are better than in past years. The depth of talent in the top 100 is incredible. Almost every tour match is tough, from the Challenger level up to the ATP level. The younger guys, and even the top guys, have to be at their best starting in the early rounds to avoid being upset. There are no easy rounds at the ATP level anymore, and that creates fewer openings in draws for young players to break through and make a mark in their teens.

As far as your last question, I have struggled with Rafa the most. It was much closer the last time we played, in Miami, than any previous match. [Editor's note: Nadal won 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 at the Sony Open last month, improving to 5-0 against Raonic.] I believe he is the toughest of the four because he is unique. No matter who you play in the previous round or can practice with, no one plays like Rafa, so you have to adjust every match. His left-handed play, the amount of spin he puts on the ball and his competitive drive make him very tough to play against. But I am getting closer to him.

I don't want people to lose their jobs, but it is obvious that Sloane Stephens' hiring of coach Paul Annacone is not working. I am not sure what her problem is, but she obviously is not listening to a word he is saying, unless he is telling her to "play for the majors." This partnership was a good idea, but she is not at the level right now that Annacone will make a difference. It is time to sell your Sloane Stephens shares.
-- Scott P., New York City

I totally understand you concern, but I don't think it's fair. You have to give them time. Sometimes coaching relationships click early, but I believe it takes about six-to-nine months to see the work with the new coach incorporated into the player's game. For me, it took many weeks and a lot of effort for things to click in my game after a recent coaching change. When I started with Ivan Ljubicic last June, I was not playing well, and just by having him around didn't mean that would instantaneously change. It took a lot of patience and hard work. We are seeing the true development of it all this year, now that we've had time to incorporate things over the last ninth months.

Sloane is great talent and athletic, and the time will come for her game to click, as well. She needs to continue to develop and improve, and I believe Annacone can guide her down the right path.

What do you think about the idea of a female coaching an ATP player? Just recently, Andy Murray asked fans for coaching suggestions. What about Martina Hingis or Martina Navratilova?
-- Nestor C., Quezon City, Philippines

It has happened before already. Michael Llodra worked with Amelie Mauresmo, and Denis Istomin has worked with his mother, Klaudiya Istomina, as a coach. We don't know if it will be widely accepted until a high-profile player gives it a try, but I don't believe we'll be seeing anyone go that route anytime soon.

I love watching doubles. I wish the top players played more doubles. I have an idea: How about making the Grand Slams best-of-three sets, but require anyone entered in the singles to play doubles?
-- Scott Borowski, Edgewood, Md.

Doubles is a lot of fun for me, and I love playing it with the right partner. I've played with Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov, Jurgen Melzer, Bernard Tomic and Feliciano Lopez, to name a few, and I played this week in Monte Carlo with Ernest Gulbis (notice we're all singles players as well). It has been really fun to play with some of the guys I'm normally competing with, and my game benefits from it.

There has to be a more efficient way in the format and scheduling of tournaments to appeal more to the top singles players to play doubles. Right now, competition is so high in the singles draw that people are trying to be as efficient as possible at tournaments. The singles tournament is so demanding, and players have to be at their peak starting in the early rounds.

Is it difficult to play well at the net? What things do you need to learn or consider to be successful?
-- S. Hartt, Toronto

I have been working on my net play constantly, and using it more in matches. The only way it will truly continue to improve is if I put myself at the net and learn from those situations more often. The more time I spend there, the more I can create instinctual feeling for playing the net. Therefore, when I come to the net, instinct takes over rather than having to overthink my placement in the court and technique.

I'm working on my volleys a lot in practice, but it is one thing to practice volleys and another thing to be able to execute in matches. I feel it is one aspect of my game that I have greatly improved in the last nine months.

Talk to us about Fabio Fognini. He's quick, has the shots and brings some spark to the game. Will he get into the top 10 this year?
-- Amy, Boston

Fab Fabio can definitely do it. He has the game, talent and athleticism to be a top player. His biggest enemy on court has often been himself, and it seems like he has really developed and matured recently. You're seeing it in the results, and it seems like the mental side is becoming less and less of an issue during matches. He is already an exciting player to watch, and I would keep an eye on him, as it's going to be fun to follow his results.

Based on his wins in Indian Wells and Miami, do you see Djokovic dominating Nadal this year? As a Nadal fan, I'm now worried about what's to come.
-- Wendy Edelstein, Berkeley, Calif.

It's a long year, and there is a lot to play out between the two. Right now, it's too early to jump to conclusions about what will happen, especially during the clay season. In addition, many people are forgetting that Nadal has already been in a Grand Slam final this year, at the Australian Open. There's still a lot of tennis to be played this year, and it will no doubt be fun to watch. However, don't count out the other players; there are many of us pushing to compete with those two.

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