Milos Raonic, Kickstarter Of A Canadian Surge, Still Going Strong
There’s plenty of buzz surrounding Canadian stars Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov throughout the world, and that excitement is no more apparent than in Montreal this week at the Coupe Rogers. Earlier this year, the #NextGenATP sensations both made the semi-finals at the ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Miami, and they have each cracked the Top 25 of the ATP Rankings.
But on Monday afternoon, the crowd inside Court Central roared to life as the stadium’s emcee read out another player’s resumé, which includes a run to the 2013 final here in Montreal. It was the first main draw match of the tournament, but the fans were plenty energetic in their support of this 6’5” right-hander, who boomed 16 aces en route to a 6-4, 6-4 win against Lucas Pouille.
While the hype surrounding Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov has clearly been warranted by their results, it was former World No. 3 Milos Raonic who led the surge of Canadian tennis nearly a decade ago, breaking onto the ATP Tour in 2011. The 28-year-old says that the love his home nation shows him never gets old.
“It's exciting. It's one of the most exciting parts about this whole journey. Obviously being here, it's definitely magnified in that perspective. But I think there's a lot of Canadians and a lot of support throughout other parts of the world,” Raonic said. “That has changed significantly from 2011, when I broke through, to how it is now, how many Canadians come out all over the world to watch and support tennis.
“I think once tennis is done for me, that's probably the thing I'll miss the most.”
Raonic has consistently shown his ability to compete against the best players in the world, lifting eight ATP Tour trophies, finishing inside the year-end Top 20 of the ATP Rankings six times, and advancing to at least the quarter-finals at nine Grand Slam championships. So although Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov are certainly helping the tennis boom in this country, Raonic was one of the keys to getting it started.
“It's nice to have more and more people engaged throughout the whole calendar year,” Raonic said. “I think generally for the growth of tennis in Canada… now with different broadcasters picking up the tennis, to have that kind of consistency of a Canadian contingency on TV week in, week out, I think that's all very healthy, very positive. To have two young guys with very high prospects, as well, it's nothing but positive for Canadian tennis.”
When Auger-Aliassime was only 12 years old, Raonic made the championship match here at the Coupe Rogers, defeating countryman Vasek Pospisil in the semi-finals. Two Canadians making their way to the bookend of such a big tournament was inspiring to an entire nation’s youth hoping to one day fill those shoes.
“I grew up watching him. He's been great. I think he gave us a lot of belief that it was possible,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I think for the country also it was great when he would play Davis Cup. He was a solid player, just like Vasek. I think these guys played well every time they play for the country. That was good to see.”
Pospisil has not yet reached the same heights as Raonic since their run at the Coupe Rogers, climbing as high as World No. 25. But the 29-year-old has been inspired by his compatriot’s efforts nonetheless.
“He's obviously done a lot of things right over the years to stay at the high level. We were rivals through juniors. We're the same age. I know Milos extremely well. I think for sure his original push up the [ATP] Rankings definitely motivated me,” said Pospisil, who came up about a year after Raonic. “I'm sure in some ways that was motivating. I think it had a positive effect on my career, as well. So I think… he's done really well. Definitely helped Canadian tennis, for sure.”
Recently-retired Canadian tennis legend Daniel Nestor, who won 1,062 tour-level doubles matches, has not lost sight of Raonic’s accomplishments during this #NextGenATP Canadian surge. Although he’s thrilled with the buzz surrounding the sport in this country, Nestor knows a lot of it has to do with Raonic, too.
“I think he’s doing really well. I think we’re all amazed at how well he does considering how little he plays… every time he plays he seems to be in the semi-finals or doing fairly well,” Nestor said. “I think he’s obviously got goals of winning a Grand Slam... so I think if people have taken him for granted, that’s too bad because I think he still has the best chance of all of them to win a Grand Slam for now.”
This Masters 1000 event alternates cities between Montreal (odd years) and Toronto (even years). And perhaps surprisingly, Raonic had not won a match in Montreal since his 2013 final run entering Monday. But the veteran didn’t show any weight on his shoulders to move to 4-1 in his FedEx ATP Head2Head series against Pouille.
“It wasn't something on my mind by any means. I'm aware of it. I remember my matches quite well. So it's not something that I just miraculously forgot,” Raonic said. “It was good. It was a positive thing for me. It was a tough first round against Lucas, who beat me in the quarters this year in Australia. To come out, to play well, to sort of get the wheels going in a positive way, I have to be happy with that.”
All of Canada was, too.