Milos Raonic: ‘Pete Sampras was my idol and I’d love to win Wimbledon’

Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros - Milos Raonic of Canada v Albert Ramos-Vinola of Spain

On another sunny Monday afternoon in Monaco the bluntly-named Beefbar tinkles with the clink of glasses and cutlery as the well-fed ladies and gentlemen of Monte Carlo settle in for a long lunch.

Thick steaks and thin flutes of champagne drift past but Milos Raonic, instead, thinks hard and talks in intricate detail about a life stretching from the Balkans to his adopted home of Canada to the grass courts of England.

Raonic, the world No9, sounds reflective as he yearns to fulfil a boyhood dream at Wimbledon. “It was a fantasy to become a tennis player,” he says. “But it’s like that dream you have when you wake up in the middle of the night and you’ve just been holding up the Wimbledon trophy. I had those. Was I ever realistic about it? No. But who is realistic at 12 or 13?

“My perspective and goals have changed. If you look back at interviews I did at 16 I said I’d like a solid career as a top-50 player. Then I did that and I’ve been in the top 15 or top 10 a very long time. I feel I’m even better now and my goals have adjusted as I’ve seen what I can get out of myself.”

Raonic is probably the only tennis pro able to pepper an interview with informed artistic references to Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol. But, having reached the last four at Wimbledon in 2014 and come so close to his first grand slam final when pushing Andy Murray to five sets in the semis of the Australian Open this year, Raonic pulses most with sporting belief. His decision to employ John McEnroe as a coaching consultant this summer suggests Raonic has more than just his huge serve to make a serious challenge at Wimbledon.

McEnroe, who won Wimbledon three times, told the New York Times: “I think he could win it. Hopefully I can give him a better understanding of how to take advantage of his attributes, his size.”

Raonic is intelligent and more complex than he might appear in his occasionally bland press conferences. He reacted to McEnroe’s announcement of their new partnership by suggesting: “Every coach I have is an adviser. And it’s my job personally, out of everything I hear, to weigh what it’s worth and what is best for me. I’m the CEO of Milos Raonic Tennis.”

That statement has its roots in the finance degree Raonic started as a means of curbing his parents’ doubts about his decision, aged 18, to become a full-time tennis pro seven years ago. On court Raonic can sometimes seem as if he’s using a cleaver with his serve – while, here in the Beefbar, he appears less a butcher than a fluid thinker.

Raonic has three coaches but he is interesting in suggesting that each has a specific role. If McEnroe will add grass-court savvy and the guile of a seven-time grand slam winner, Carlos Moyá and Riccadio Piatti offer different attributes. “Coaching is really important at this level,” Raonic says. “Carlos is so much more laid-back than me. He has the Majorca mentality and he’s taught me not to give importance to things that might mentally drain me and which don’t really matter.”

Raonic admits that his intensity means he wears a mouth guard to stop himself from grinding his teeth – and so the relaxed presence of Moyá, a world No1 for a fleeting period, is beneficial. But Raonic stresses that McEnroe and Moyá are distinct from Piatti. “There’s a shorter shelf life with ex-players. A former player can help you – but it comes from their personal experience on tour. Whereas Ricardo, who is a coach through and through, likes to be on court six hours.

“A retired player doesn’t like to be on court just for the sake of it. But Ricardo will enjoy coaching a five-year-old. The kid will hit the ball everywhere and Ricardo will run around and pick up balls for two hours before he coaches me. To be honest he probably enjoys that aspect more than working with pros. It’s a very different mentality to a couple of former players giving you their experience. But it’s important to have both.”

Raonic’s potential to win a grand slam was evident this year in Australia. He beat Roger Federer in Brisbane and then Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open – before leading Andy Murray two sets to one in an epic semi-final.

“I was playing great,” he remembers. “It was definitely the best tennis I’ve ever played. But problems with my adductor started in the third set. I felt a tightness but told myself: ‘OK, this is probably just fatigue … keep going.’ Then, in the fourth, it was quite painful and became a hindrance. That match against Andy gave me more heartache than any other because if I had stayed healthy I had a good opportunity to win it. It also hurt because last year I had to deal with so much injury.”

Raonic rose to No4 in the world before injuries derailed his 2015 season. “I was a little depressed about it all,” he admits. “There was always a grey area – maybe you can play the match if you don’t practise. Nothing was concrete and I had to stop the season early and try to get the injury behind me.”

Raonic appears injury-free now but his semi-final appearance two years ago marks the only time he has progressed past the third round at Wimbledon. His suspicion of the surface remains. “Nobody plays their best tennis on grass. It’s about managing how much worse you play. Just because it’s slipperier the surface is so tough. I’ve had to learn to accept that it’s as hard for my opponent.”

In 2011, during a second-round match at Wimbledon against Gilles Müller, Raonic slipped and fell. “That put me out for three months. It was on Court Three. For the next few years I always requested not to play on Court Three. I said: ‘Please, I don’t want to think about this court. Put me on any other court.’ The next time I played it was the year I made the semis [in 2014]. That year I hit the ball hard. Before I would try and place it – and then I started hitting it really hard. It was great until I was very disappointed in how I played in that semi [against Roger Federer]. Wimbledon has taught me the most valuable lessons of all the slams. It has a different aura – and Wimbledon is definitely the tournament I’m most in awe of. Also, Pete Sampras was my idol and that’s another reason I’d love to win Wimbledon.”

Raonic’s preparations begin next week at the Aegon Championships at The Queen’s Club. “Last year was the first time I played Queen’s and I really liked it. It has great courts, great facilities and it’s definitely the best place to prepare for Wimbledon. I also like the fact it’s closer to the city centre so you can go out and keep your mind fresh before you close off yourself in a house in Wimbledon.

Queen’s will begin his liaison with McEnroe and it’s a mark of how far he has come since he was coached by his father in Richmond Hill, Ontario. “We had a deal at Blackmore tennis club. At peak time it would be $36 an hour for a court so my dad spoke to the managers and they said you pay a basic amount for the month and you can use the courts when they’re free. My dad coached me from 6 to 8 in the morning and 9 to 11 at night. Those were the two slots when it was guaranteed we could get on to court. I was nine years old so I was happy to be up late.”

Raonic is now able to appreciate how hard it was for his parents to leave the old Yugoslavia for Canada. “When we moved in 1994, I was three and my brother and sister were teenagers. It was a huge change for my parents but they were lucky. They both got jobs on the same day.”

His family is of Serbian descent and from Montenegro. “The [Balkan] conflict was one part of the decision to move – another was opportunity. The conflict pushed them over the line. It was very difficult for them but they did not show it to us one bit. Everything was geared to giving us opportunities – and for me that meant tennis.”

His father has a PhD in electrical engineering and his mother a masters in computer engineering – and, as Raonic says, “they didn’t regard tennis as a realistic profession because it’s a bottleneck sport. There are a lot of financial benefits at the top but it dwindles down fast. It’s tough starting out. I remember if you play the Florida Futures there are five matches to qualify and you have to win your first round to get any ATP points. It either makes you or breaks you.

“You could play four matches and not reach the main draw and you wouldn’t make any money. But you have to pay your airfare and if you want to have a true shot at it you need a coach. You’re paying meals, accommodation and flights for a second person. You’re thinking: ‘I have a match at 11am tomorrow so I’d better check out of my hotel because if I don’t win I don’t want to pay an extra night here.’ It tests you emotionally. It tests how badly you want it.

“My parents were understanding but the rule was I had to do university courses when turning pro. I just thought if I put in the work then things will happen for me. I was always like that.”

As we leave the restaurant and head down to the port, Raonic’s more expansive interests become clear. “I was introduced to Andy Warhol’s art in New York City and that’s one of the reasons I’ve fallen in love with that city. My mother’s uncle is probably the most renowned artist in Montenegro. But the rest of my family are academic. My two grandfathers and my father were all professors. My mother worked at a bank.

“In my upbringing there was not a real understanding of art and how it changes people. Art shows where we have been as a race, and the turmoil we have faced as human beings. Look at China. Artists are banned. Ai Weiwei had his passport taken from him for many years and his work is phenomenal.”

Can tennis be an art? “It is,” Raonic exclaims. “Roger is the most graceful artist on court but we are all creative in different ways as we work out how to put our games together. It’s hard to measure greatness – in tennis or art – and so I don’t know if winning a grand slam is the true definition of a great player. But I would love to do something special at Wimbledon. I feel I can achieve much, much more this year.”

Milos Raonic will play in the Aegon Championships against Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka from Monday at The Queen’s Club. aegonchampionships.com

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Donald McRae, for The Guardian on Monday 6th June 2016 11.32 Europe/London

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