Milos Raonic and the drive to fight on in the shadow of the ‘Big Three’ era


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TORONTO — Milos Raonic fired an out-wide ace.

Frances Tiafoe watched the ball go by.

Raonic defeated Tiafoe, the 10th-ranked player in the world, in three sets 6-7 (12), 7-6 (4), 6-3 in the first round of the National Bank Open in Toronto on Monday. After two hours and 44 minutes, the Canadian had won his first match since coming back to the ATP Tour following a two-year hiatus from tennis due to injuries.

The crowd embraced Raonic on his return. Fans waved Canadian flags. Red and white hats scattered across Sobeys Stadium. “Let’s Go Milos!” chants permeated the stadium at critical points.

Several moments against Tiafoe tested Raonic. In a tiebreaker that felt like a heavyweight fight — with both players delivering crushing serves, saving set points — Tiafoe’s clinching set point at 13-12 sparked controversy. The umpire, Fergus Murphy, initially said Tiafoe touched the net before changing the call in the American’s favor.

The ATP Tour rule book cites that the area between the singles stick and net post “is considered a permanent fixture and not part of the net.” Raonic smashed his racket after losing the set. But he never lost belief.

Raonic rallied back, and after the win, he joked that he wanted to look at the rule book. A humble deflection for the monumental accomplishment: winning an ATP Tour match for the first time since March 29, 2021.

Raonic won his next match, too, before the magic ran out in the Round of 16 against American Mackenzie McDonald. Raonic’s brief run at the National Bank Open is far removed from the hiatus he took away from the game. For 14 months, as Raonic dealt with Achilles and toe injuries, he didn’t pick up a racket. He remained out of the spotlight. His recovery took place in privacy. There were moments when Raonic questioned whether he could come back, and if he wanted to.

But Raonic loves to compete. He enjoys the preparation and the challenge of dissecting opponents. Even at 32 years old, Raonic believes he can produce a high level of tennis.

His story is a familiar one in men’s tennis, as multiple generations of players have struggled to win the biggest prizes in the era of the “Big Three” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. In the 80 Grand Slam events since Federer won his first major title, at Wimbledon in 2003, a total of 30 different men have made it to a final. Only 12 have actually hoisted a championship trophy. In the 80 Slams before that, there were 28 different champions.

It’s a hazy day and Raonic is practicing with eighth-ranked Jannik Sinner, five days prior to Raonic’s match against Tiafoe. The stadium is empty, except for the players and coaches on court.

Raonic fires a blazing serve. Sinner lunges to return it with his backhand. Raonic crushes a forehand, dictating the point. After Sinner responds with a backhand, Raonic connects on a crosscourt backhand himself. Sinner can’t hit it back.

“I’m happy that I had the chance to practice with him when he is feeling well on court,” Sinner told The Athletic. “It’s one of the best serves on tour. I feel like in the match he serves better.”

Practicing with Sinner and 2021 U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev prior to the National Bank Open proved to Raonic that he can still play his style of game.

“I don’t feel like I’m that far off from playing tennis that was reminiscent of two to three years ago,” Raonic said.

Three years ago, Raonic was still a factor in major tournaments. He made the Australian Open quarterfinals in 2020 and the final at the Cincinnati Masters, losing to Djokovic in the final after winning the first set. At majors, he’s been a quarterfinalist or better 10 times, peaking with an appearance in the Wimbledon final in 2016, where he lost to Andy Murray in straight sets. Raonic was 25 years old and was among the latest crop of young players expected to break through and win a Slam. A few months later, he would reach his career-high ranking of No. 3 in the world.

“He was the big guy who could trouble the Big Four,” Medvedev said, adding Murray into the nicknamed group atop men’s tennis. “It was always interesting when someone could do it.”

When healthy, Raonic’s game could overpower opponents. Injuries, however, plagued his career. Foot, hamstring and knee ailments forced Raonic to miss time on the tour. The last time Raonic played all four Slams in the same year was 2016. He believes that a fall at Wimbledon in 2011, which forced him to have right hip surgery, is the cause of many of his ailments over the years.

“I remember being in Brisbane one year (2016) and he beat up Federer in the final,” said former Canadian doubles player Daniel Nestor. “I was like, it’s only a matter of time before he starts winning Slams. Unfortunately, his body didn’t hold up.”

“I don’t feel like I’m that far off from playing tennis that was reminiscent of two to three years ago,” Raonic, who made the Cincinnati final in 2020, says. (Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images)

There’s also the reality of the era Raonic played in. Since Raonic turned pro in 2008, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have combined to win 238 titles, including 65 Slams. Raonic’s only win against a member of the “Big Three” at a Slam was over Federer in the 2016 Wimbledon semifinals. Every time Raonic lost to a “Big Three” member at a Slam, one of them went on to win the title.

“It was unlucky because it was the Big Three,” said Riccardo Piatti, who coached Raonic from 2013 to 2017. “The year he (Raonic) played well (2016), Murray was No. 1. He did everything. Thinking back, you need to enjoy what he did. Because we tried.”

Raonic is just one of a host of players — along with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomáš Berdych, Grigor Dimitrov, Kevin Anderson and others — who knocked at the door but never could escape the reality of the era. All of those players reached the top 5 at some point. All of them made multiple deep Slam runs. All of them were thwarted in many of their biggest moments by the Big Three.

“Three guys messed with everybody’s recalibration of what’s normal,” Raonic said, citing the emphasis placed on Slams because of the Big Three’s dominance.

And then there’s Raonic, recording his first victory against a top-10 player since 2020. Despite Raonic having a poor record against the Big Three, he made them earn their victories. At the 2014 French Open, Djokovic said that when Raonic “serves well, there is not much you can do.” Nadal said that he needed to apply constant pressure whenever he played Raonic.

“If I’m not playing aggressive, then I am dead,” Nadal said at the 2017 Australian Open about playing Raonic, who had lost to the Canadian at Brisbane that year.

There’s a connective tissue between the players in this era. They embrace longevity. They are hungry for success.

“I think the heart of it is a love of tennis,” Andy Murray, who reached the Round of 16 in Canada at age 36, told The Athletic. “I love the game. I want to see how far I can push to see how much closer I can get to the top 10, the top 20 in the world.”

“From nutrition, the way you exercise, how much time you spend on the court compared to how much time you spend in the gym, it’s all become a science,” Raonic said. “That’s why you’re seeing players get more out of themselves.”

Raonic knew how important it was to come back to Toronto. He’s had a boundless impact on Canadian tennis. Montreal native Felix Auger-Aliassime, who has ascended as high as No. 6 in the world, called him “a big inspiration for myself and many others.” Sobeys Stadium is 10 minutes from where Raonic grew up. Family and friends could attend his matches. Before his second-round match against Taro Daniel, Raonic went to his parents’ home after practice and played with his two mini golden retrievers.

According to Casey Curtis — Raonic’s first coach — Raonic returned because he knew his game could contend with top players.

“If he doesn’t think he can compete, he’s not going to do this,” Curtis told The Athletic. “The work is so difficult to get up to this level where you can actually battle with these guys. He can still compete at this level.”

From the start of this year, Raonic dropped 40 pounds. With most of his injuries being lower body, Raonic wanted to take pressure off the joints. Then, Raonic spent hours practicing, with very few people watching. He called it “quiet tennis.” In training, Raonic enjoys the silence, so he can zero in on an objective during practice. But being away from matches for so long, Raonic missed the electric atmospheres. It’s why he relished the energy from the Canadian crowd.

“You’re always trying to find answers, solutions to issues that come up on court and trying to find a way to win,” Raonic said. “Getting that kind of energy, that kind of response, it makes a difference.”

As Raonic walked off the court following his loss to McDonald, the crowd serenaded him with raucous cheers. He waved to the fans, many of them standing. He tossed a towel to a young fan near the stadium’s exit.

In a career filled with injuries, where “three guys messed with everybody’s expectations for a long time,” Raonic is still an icon in Canada.

And he’s still a testament to the spirit that keeps players coming back in pursuit of that elusive Slam.



Carlos Alcaraz is the compelling rival both Novak Djokovic and men’s tennis needed

(Top photo: Julian Avram / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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