Milos Raonic is making his presence felt in California, and he's coming to wreak havoc on a draw near you soon.
===San Jose, Ca.
Well, I saw Milos Raonic up close and personal today, and I'm here to tell you what you more than likely already knew: He's good, with a capital G.
I stepped out from my little desk in the bowels of the Arena that we like to refer to as "The Shark Tank" -- walking past Teymuraz Gabashvili, Lleyton Hewitt, Dustin Brown in the process -- to find that Milos had already put the smack down on the No. 4 seed Xavier Malisse in the first set.
As I settled into my seat my eyes were struck by the vision of Raonic. Here he was, the guy that a lot of people have been talking about, and here I was, sitting right behind him on the baseline as he prepared to serve.
Okay, so we all know about the serve, I realize I'm not going to tell the true tennis fan anything new about Raonic there. But still, when you see it close up it's hard not to entertain visions of this young man climbing all the way up the ATP ladder of success -- where he stops, nobody knows!
Boy, was Malisse looking a little dejected. Much in the same way that Ivo Karlovic, John Isner, and other big servers can take away another player's rhythm, Raonic made Malisse miserable today. You could see the words "get me out of here" written on his face, and even though the match was relatively close (1 break per set made the difference for Raonic), it felt as if Raonic was absolutely dominating.
Psychologically speaking, Raonic will find himself in good shape if he can make his opponents feel inferior based on the strength of his serve in matches like he did today.
He hammered 20 aces in 10 service games and basically left Malisse -- a very accomplished player -- feeling that he was out of his league.
Raonic wasn't tested much today by Malisse, but he did have to face a break point half way through the second set. On that point he hit a purposeful approach shot, snuck into the net like a ninja and flicked a touch volley that landed just on the other side of the net. Malisse was so far from the ball that he would have needed a private jet to make a play on it.
Two points later, the veteran Belgian was throwing his racquet in disgust. That's how small the windows of opportunity are when facing a server of Raonic's stature.
But ultimately, if Raonic wants to fulfill his promise, and the growing expectations that are being heaped upon him since his breakout performance in Melbourne, Raonic will have to be more than just the serve.
I tried to get a feel for what kind of a player Raonic is when he's not serving, and here's what I came up with:
1. He has good court sense. He knows where he is on the court, and he knows the difference between an offensive and a defensive position on the court. He's also got a great tennis demeanor in that he's very calm, and pretty much constructive when he plays.
You don't see Raonic get into many baseline rallies because he generally looks for opportunities to end points quickly, either with his inside-out forehand (his best shot by far) or some other type of aggressive ground stroke.
2. Raonic doesn't appear to be a horrible returner at all. He's actually won 15% of his return games this year, which is higher than John Isner (11%), but it's obvious that he could do a better job of returning at this stage. Today, he was opportunistic in terms of taking advantage of a relatively bad serving day for Malisse, and as the year (or years) progresses, he'll likely develop more of a feel for how to make his opponents play, and how to score the crucial breaks under pressure.
He won't need many the way the way he serves. He didn't today, and that'll probably be the story for him in the future. Can he get enough breaks against enough good servers to give him the edge?
3. When Raonic has the advantage, he is deadly. He attacks short returns and never lets his foe get back in the point. This killer instinct will serve him well, as it will allow him to save his energy for the return and it will help him demoralize the competition.
4. When Raonic gets in extended baseline rallies, he's in trouble. He'll need to develop in this regard, both in holding his own in the longer rallies, and in doing what he can to avoid playing points on his adversaries terms.
He's still a work in progress, but the fact that the 20-year-old came in here and absolutely hammered the No. 4 seed can't be a bad sign.
He'll be a factor against anybody he faces, and I suspect that Malisse won't be the last player to flash a desultory look of defeat after facing a barrage of aces from Raonic this year.
Raonic will play James Blake in the next round.