How far can Raonic go?

I don’t write about tennis very often but I have always enjoyed the sport. Between finally getting around to reading Andre Agassi’s excellent autobiography, Open (if you like sports biographies and haven’t read it, put it near the top of your list) and watching the US Open while I’m home recovering from knee surgery, I’ve had some time to get back into it. One silver lining about sitting around recovering from surgery is it slows down life a bit and has given me a chance to rediscover a sport I almost forgot I enjoyed.

Milos Raonic is really giving Canadians someone to cheer for, our first ever Top 10 ranked player with a legitimate chance to win a Grand Slam someday. Raonic came agonizingly close (i.e. a match point he hit about an inch long) to making his first Slam quarter-final Monday night, dropping a five-setter to Richard Gasquet. I don’t like to overuse the word “epic” but this one ran nearly five hours with four of the sets taking seven games to win – three by tiebreaker.

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With all the tributes to retiring American James Blake earlier in the tournament, I can’t help thinking of comparisons between Canada’s “first great hope” and the man who was sort of the U.S. “next great hope” in the wake of Agassi and Pete Sampras, but never went all the way.

Blake made it as high as No. 4, without ever advancing to a Grand Slam final, or even a semifinal. A fine career, but one I’m sure he would have liked to exceed. I wonder what Raonic would say if you asked him if he’d be happy retiring after reaching Blake’s peak. A world No. 4 would make him Canada’s best individual tennis player ever. But I like to believe he has a Grand Slam in him somewhere and could end up even better than Blake.

My greatest memory of Blake was another marathon – his legendary 2005 US Open quarter-final against an aging Agassi. I was working the 3-11 shift in the sports department at the Telegraph-Journal then, and the match was on when I got home late. Blake had Agassi down 6-3, 6-3. Agassi had always been a favourite, and I remember thinking “Who knows when he’ll get this far again, I’ll just watch this last set and go to bed.”

What ended up happening was one of the most memorable matches in history, as Agassi battled back to win the third and fourth sets by identical 6-3, 6-3 scores. The Disney ending featured a fifth-set tiebreaker, with Agassi ultimately gutting out the win. I remember staying up past 1 a.m. Atlantic Time, glued to the TV as the Americans grunted their way through jaw-dropping point after jaw-dropping point.

If you have a lot of time on your hands, the whole match is on YouTube here

If you don’t, at least fast-forward to the end for the tie-breaker, when both players are pouring out all they have. Agassi retired a year later and many looked to Blake to be the next American star. It never really worked out that way for him, despite a fine career he should be proud of. While 2005 v. Agassi was a fantastic match, I’m sure he’d rather be remembered more for his wins than his losses.

At 22, Raonic is four years younger than Blake was as the time. Achieving Blake’s ceiling would be a great accomplishment, but it will be fun to watch and see if he can achieve even more. Maybe Raonic can take the next step and be remembered for a win instead of an “epic” loss.

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~ by Nathan White on September 3, 2013.

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