It is an exciting time to be a tennis fan in Canada and it is about to get a whole lot better. This past weekend in Memphis, we had Canadians in the men’s, ladies and doubles final. Daniel Nestor added a 72nd career doubles title to go along with his 6 Grand Slam trophies and 2000 Olympic Gold Medal. On the woman’s side, Rebecca Marino made her first career final before withdrawing due to injury after the first set. With the finals appearance, she is now the #60 ranked woman in the world.
The majority of the buzz over the weekend was reserved for 20 year old Thornhill, Ontario native, Milos Raonic, who lost a three set thriller against Andy Roddick. Widely acknowledged as the best match of the year, it probably ranks somewhere in the top 5 matches I have ever watched. A large part of what made it fascinating was the fact I was watching a Canadian play tennis as well as anyone in our country ever has.
He should have wilted from the pressure and the fatigue multiple times. He finally did appear to run out of gas in the third set, going down 4-1 and in danger of being broken for 5-1. With a smirk that oozed confidence, he held serve before breaking Roddick to get back on serve. A couple of loose shots at 5-6, followed by one of the greatest tennis shots ever, and Roddick was the champion.
For Raonic, Memphis wraps up an incredible month which included a quarter final appearance at the Australian Open and his first ATP victory a week ago in San Jose. He started the year ranked 156 in the world and now sits at #37, the highest ranked man in Canadian tennis history. All of this success comes only nine ATP World Tour events into his career.
For Canadian tennis fans, Raonic repesents only the fourth singles player since 1980 to have any sort of material impact in the tennis world. * Carling Bassett-Seguso stormed onto the women’s tennis scene in the early 1980s, won a couple of tournaments, had some modest Grand Slam success before retiring from the game in 1988. She ranked as high as #8 in the world.
* I took a look at every notable Canadian tennis player on Wikipedia. Arguably, no Canadian had a material impact in the tennis world prior to 1980. The closest I could find was Mike Belkin, a fine pro who played in the late 1960s/ early 1970s. Belkin had a couple of semi-final appearances and once made the third round of Wimbledon.
Aleksandra Wozniak was the only other women’s single player to create a buzz in the past 30 years. She has one career title and three final appearances to go along with her top 35 year end ranking in both 2008 and 2009. Her career best ranking was #21 in the world in mid-2009. Recent injuries have derailed her career at the moment.
This brings us to the man who should have been the best Canadian tennis player in history, Greg Rusedski. The crown jewel of Tennis Canada’s junior development program, Rusedski broke on the scene in a huge way by winning his first career ATP title as a 19 year old in 1993. He was very much to Canadian tennis what Raonic is today.
In 1995, Rusedski took advantage of a loophole that allows children with a British mother the ability to obtain British citizenship. He severed his ties with Canadian tennis and pledged his allegiance to Great Britain. With that move, he disappeared from the Canadian tennis books. He went on to rank as high as #4 in the world and made a US Open final. Neither accomplishment is included in the Canadian tennis history books.
Click on the link for an interesting read about Rusedski and his decision to turn his back on Canada. From my perspective, it seemed to be about changing his career ceiling. The money from sponsorship was better in the UK as was the possible glory if he could win a Grand Slam title.
While the money aspiration might have worked, Tim Henmen ensured that Rusedski would never win the hearts of the British public. Ironically, his career ceiling might have actually been higher in Canada. A Grand Slam win or two and Rusedski might have found himself with the same national respect and admiration that Mike Weir obtained by winning the Masters golf tournament back in 2003. Instead of being a national hero, Rusedski put himself in a purgatory where neither Canada nor the UK ever took him to heart.
While this is not meant to be a post about Rusedski, his story is relevant given the fact that Raonic was born in what is now Montenegro. To his credit, Raonic has consistently talked about his desire to impact tennis in Canada. He wants to be the beacon of light that inspires others to follow in his footsteps.
Mike Weir’s success has resulted in Canada producing some of the best amateur players in the world today. Canada’s golf future looks bright. If Raonic can fulfill his potential, it could be the start of a sustained Canadian relevance in the tennis world.
What is Raonic’s potential? Personally, I have watched him on television four times, including his doubles win over Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the 2010 Rogers Cup. I also saw three of his matches during his run last week in Memphis.
If I was forced to guess, I think Raonic is going to continue to have an impact on the hard courts and perhaps on grass. He has three wins in 2011 over world top 10 players and several comfortable wins over players in the top 20. I think he will easily get inside the top thirty players in the world by the end 2011 with an outside shot at the top 20.
If his work ethic is what it appears to be and he can remain injury free, I can easily see him in the top 10 in the world by early 2013. From there, I think he has a chance to beat Rusedski’s world #4 ranking and eventually win a grand slam title.
My opinion is shape pretty heavily by the television commentators the past weekend. They were stunned at Raonic’s maturity, his composure, his fight and his willingness to mix up his game. As opposed to other big servers *, Raonic mixes up the power with spotting his serves. He is not afraid to slice some backhands, extend rallies and create some doubt in his opponent.
*Raonic is far and away leading the ATP Tour in aces in 2011. Late in the third set yesterday, he cranked it up as high as 150mph. Andy Roddick holds the title of fastest serve ever at 155mph.
I will give the last word to Andy Roddick, who barely beat Raonic in the Memphis final yesterday.
“He’s as exciting of a talent as we’ve seen in a while,” said Roddick. “The good thing for him is he’s going to be able to learn on the job because that serve is going to win him a lot of matches, even if he goes up and down with the rest of his play. It’s one of the bigger serves I’ve seen. I still think he can learn a lot about playing the game, but it won’t surprise me if he’s Top 10 sooner rather than later.”
It is certainly a time for Canadians to get excited about tennis.