Tuesday, February 15, 2011

More Milos Musings

He's climbed 97 spots in the ATP rankings since the beginning of 2011. What's next for mighty Milos Raonic?
How does that Monkees song go? You know the one..."then I saw his serve, and I'm a believer."

Okay, excuse me for getting carried away -- and for writing three of my last four blog posts about Milos Raonic -- but really is there anybody else on tour who deserves the ink as much as this kid?

Not at the moment. So, at least for a few more days, Dolgopolov, Berankis, and Dimitrov will all have to wait. Right now it's Milos, Milos, and more Milos.

As Raonic prepares for his highly anticipated rematch with Fernando Verdasco in Memphis tomorrow evening, I thought that now would be a good time to look at his stats to try and make sense of his rise, and to try and use the numbers to see what we can expect from the Maple Leaf Missile as the year winds down.

Please keep in mind that there are several huge intangibles regarding Raonic that will only reveal themselves over time. I hate to be the one to spoil the party, but Raonic has yet to give us any indication that he can handle the beastly grind that is life on the ATP Tour.

He hasn't had a chance yet, but he will get that chance in the upcoming months.

When and if Raonic starts to make a habit of going deep into draws, his body will face a new level of strain, one that he's likely never experienced. Judging from his physique (his legs are very sturdy, and I know because I sat less than 10 feet from them on two occasions last week), Raonic should be fine, but only time will tell how he can handle the grind.

Aside from adjusting to the increased physicality of being a major player on tour, Raonic will also have to deal with going from being the hunter to being the hunted. As his résumé grows, all the players on tour will gain a level of familiarity with Raonic's game. It might not make returning those intercontinental ballistic serves (ICBS's) any easier, but it might mean that his opponents will have more insight as to what kind of tactics can break the big Canadian's game down.

I'm not saying Raonic won't pass all these tests, but the only way we are going to find out is to sit back with some popcorn and see what the kid is made of. It ought to be pretty interesting between here and the end of Miami to see if he can keep performing at this level.

Now, let's take a look at some of Raonic's year-to-date statistics in order to understand what he has done well, and what he hasn't done so well.

First off, the serving numbers are OFF THE CHARTS. Raonic leads the ATP in first serve points won (80%, tied with Berdych, Soderling, Roddick, Karlovic) and he also leads the ATP in second serve points won (61%, tied with Istomin). In terms of service games won, Raonic is second only to Ivo Karlovic.

Clearly, there are no issues with the serve. Furthermore, Raonic's lower body strength, impeccable timing, and smooth, repeatable delivery should keep him near the top of all of those categories for a long time.

Raonic told the press room last week in San Jose that he has been focusing a lot of his effort on two things.

First, he's been trying to do a better job of taking care of his second serve by moving the serve around the box and also by playing a better shot off his opponents returns. It was clear in San Jose that he was having success, because even when players like Berankis and Verdasco returned his second serve deep, Raonic stayed on the offensive and peppered them with another of his deadly weapons -- his very nasty forehand.

Second, Raonic has been trying to do a better job of winning points on his opponents second serve. This hasn't been so simple. In fact, his return game, like many of the other big men on tour (think Isner, Karlovic, Querrey, but don't think del Potro), has been the sticking point for Raonic. He's currently ranked 87th in return games won, and he's tied for 99th in winning 2nd serve return points.

This is an area of significant concern for Raonic, but he hasn't had to pay for his lack of service breaks as of yet this year. That, however, could change.

Raonic started the year winning 8 of 9 tiebreakers, and it's not really surprising to see that he's had that kind of success because the serve gives him an advantage in breakers. But should his tiebreak performance start to slip, matches will become a lot more difficult for Raonic to win, because he isn't a good enough returner at the moment.

Sam Querrey and John Isner each win a lower percentage of return games (13 % and 11 % respectively) but each appear to have plateaued just inside the ATP top-20.

If Raonic wants to go higher than that, he'll have to keep winning 90% of his tiebreaks, or find a way to get more out of his return game.

The fact that he has fairly reliable groundstrokes from both sides should help, but if I were Raonic I would be focusing a huge portion of my energy into winning 20% of return games. I'd be picking the brains of all the good returners on tour, studying their tapes and experimenting with different tactical approaches.

If Raonic can significantly improve his return game, it's hard to imagine him ending up anywhere other than the top-10.

If he doesn't, the climb to higher ground is going to be a hell of a lot more treacherous.

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