Searching for an analogy to best describe Canadian tennis star Milos Raonic, TV analyst and former player Justin Gimelstob came up with this: "If he was a stock, I would buy it."
Raonic's progress on the ATP World Tour has been rapid. The 21-year-old started 2011 ranked No. 156 in the world, opened 2012 at No. 31, and now is No. 15, making him the youngest player in the top 20. Raonic has won two ATP titles this season, but many wonder why he hasn't yet had a breakthrough win in a marquee tournament and whether he has hit a plateau.
Many tennis experts assure that Raonic's career is moving only upward. But they echo that the 6-foot-5, 198-pound Canadian must improve his mobility and return of serves, and say the ultra-competitive ATP top 15 will provide a slower, tougher climb. They urge patience, reminding that men's tennis today is vastly different from the game in which Pete Sampras and Boris Becker won Grand Slams as teenagers. If the young Canadian stays healthy, they say, his monster serve and forehand are too good not to push him into the top 10 within the next few years.
Raonic is coming off a round of 16 loss at the U.S. Open to eventual champion and world No. 3 Andy Murray, who dominated play and exposed some of the youngster's weaknesses. Many experts have similar thoughts about what Raonic should do to reach the next level.
"Milos is one of the few young talents you can see being a truly impactful player at the top level, because he's got a tremendous foundation. Day by day, you can really see him figuring it out and improving," said Gimelstob, a commentator for Tennis Channel.
"He leaves too many balls stranded in the middle of the court on the backhand side, and he needs to improve at bridging the gap between the baseline and the net behind his big ground strokes. He needs to get more comfortable with mixing in some serve and volleys, and must get better with mobility and understanding how to deploy his weapons."
Raonic's career record versus opponents ranked in the top 10 is 7-13 – 4-5 during the 2012 season, with wins over Tomas Berdych, Nicolas Almagro, Janko Tipsarevic and a clay-court victory over Murray in Barcelona. But he also lost to much lower-ranked players such as Lleyton Hewitt, Sam Querrey and Benjamin Becker. Raonic is 4-7 in deciding sets in 2012 and had a 5-3 record in Grand Slam play.
In 2012, Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., has won 93 per cent of his service games. He has dished up 733 aces in 47 matches, second to American John Isner's 850 aces in 56 matches. Raonic leads the ATP in percentages of first serve points won (83) and break points saved (74). Yet he has won just 16 per cent of his return games, ranking him 63rd on tour in that category.
"I think his transition forward can improve, and as a big guy, it's a little easier moving side to side than it is moving forward and getting down for those low volleys," said former Australian pro player and coach Darren Cahill, now a tennis analyst for ESPN. "He looks like he's strengthening his legs and getting stronger at moving around the court. His hands could get better around the net and his return of serve could improve, and those things will improve with more time on the court against the best guys."
Eurosport tennis commentator Miguel Seabra said he has seen Raonic gain respect on the tour for his rise and his close relationships with Spanish players, stemming from his coach, Spanish ex-pro Galo Blanco. Seabra sees a lasting match there.
"As a player, Galo was small and had to fight a lot to win every match," Seabra recalls. "Milos needs to improve in some of the areas where Galo was very strong as a player, so I think they can be a perfect match."
Seabra has some questions about how injury-prone Raonic might be, because of his long-legged and distinct frame and slightly-rounded shoulders. He projects the big Canadian will need to spend lots of time on injury prevention to reach his potential.
"He has a great serve and great forehand, but he has to improve his return of serve and stay healthy, and I'm sure his medical team has a good plan for that," Seabra said. "I expect Milos to improve a lot, but those two aspects must be taken care of."
The average age of the final 16 men at the 2012 U.S. Open was 26.4 years, with Raonic the youngest. It leaves one to wonder what could be five years down the road?
"I put Raonic at the top of the crop among the guys very close to his age, and I envision him in five years pushing far into Slams and being entrenched in the top 10, as long as he stays healthy," Cahill said. "His weapons are too big not to make that happen."