Playing Big

Monday, February 14, 2011 /by

Milos by Pete Bodo

I like the way Fernando Verdasco put it while contemplating the future of the kid who beat him yesterday in the San Jose final, Canada's Milos Raonic. "What surprises me is that he has [long] legs, and if you see him in the locker room he has the body of a 12-year-old and has half [the size] of my shoulder—and serves 140 all the time. Nobody knows the future, but I think he can be Top 20 very soon...But there are a lot of guys who can return serve well and they are not going to give him the Top 20 for free."

Two things about Verdasco's analysis are worth remembering. The last sentence, which may seem more throwaway line than pearl of wisdom, point toward a reality of life on the ATP tour—it's easiest the first time around, before your career rivals have gotten a good look at your game and a good read on your strengths and weaknesses. Whenever a new talent bursts upon the scene, the other players tend to be a bit apprehensive, a mite passive. It's as if they don't want to realize or acknowledge that the threat is real. Once the truth dawns, though, they tend to dig in their heels and make life difficult for the new guy. This is Raonic's first lap in a long race. 

But also note that Verdasco said, elsewhere in his presser, that while Raonic has a serve like that of Ivo Karlovic, he has something the towering Croatian still lacks, probably for good given his age of 31—groundstrokes. Reliable forehands and backhands. And let's not forget that kick serve of Raonic's, the one that Verdasco might have tried returning with a smash. Raonic may force the statisticians to create a new category of service return: it could now be a forehand, backhand, or...overhead return. I can't wait until Raonic plays Olivier Rochus. Can you ace a guy vertically?

I also liked the comparison of Raonic's physique to that of a 12-year-old (a description Verdasco delivered in his post-final press conference with a smile and a good-natured laugh). Indeed. What's going to happen if—or is it when?—Raonic fills out and bulks up, and finds his own Gil Reyes or Larry Stefanki?

It's a good question that may never be answered because Raonic may not change all that much as he enters the prime of his tennis life. We already know that he's spent plenty of time in Spain, under the tutelage of his coach, former clay-court grinder Galo Blanco. Knowing the emphasis the Spanish put on fitness, it's hard to imagine Raonic needing or taking on a heavier work load. But this does lead to some interesting questions.

Raonic is 20; his future seems limitless, but he's actually already on the old side of young. Let's remember, Marin Cilic was 19 when he won New Haven back in 2008 (he was the youngest winner on the ATP tour before Raonic). Juan Martin del Potro was the same age as Raonic when he won the U.S. Open, although del Potro was fast closing on 21 during his run in Flushing, while Raonic just turned 20 last December. A full year at that age represents a lot of life.

But here's something else: what do these three men under discussion have in common? The obvious answer is size, the not so obvious answer is identical size. Delpo and Cilic are 6'6", Raonic is a shade under at an official 6'5". What Raonic does, though, more than either Cilic or even del Potro, is play big—that's the by-product of embracing Pete Sampras as your childhood idol and role model. Efficient, bold, always ready to give it the gas, Raonic is four inches taller than Sampras. The very idea of what those extra five inches can do for a player who harbors a Sampras-like vision of the game is scary. Like Sampras, Raonic eschews frills and flourishes. He's all business, always looking to end a point.

That's significantly different from Cilic and even del Potro, two players who not only can play from the baseline but prefer it to a greater extent than does Raonic. That inevitably wastes a bit of the size advantage, albeit far less so for del Potro, a Grand Slam champion. Raonic seems different, and I've got to believe he's going to make the differences more rather than less apparent. He's probably going to press the matter and pressure his opponents more forcefully than some of the other so-called big men, an undertaking in which superior size is useful psychologically as well as physically.

Given that "big" is an adjective that will inevitably preceed Raonic's name, let's see just how big he is. It turns out he isn't so huge after all—at least if you concede that height is a relative factor; 6'6" in the NBA is different from 6'6" in Major League Baseball.

Karlovic is 6'10", Long John Isner 6'9", and Kevin Anderson, last week's winner in Johannesburg, is 6'8".  Cilic and Delpo are 6'6", and so is Sam Querrey—but does anyone watch Querrey and think, first and foremost, "This guy is big!" I'm not so sure. Querrey in some ways is the opposite of Raonic; he plays a small game, and that's a tribute to his athletic ability as well as, perhaps, an inhibitor to greater success.

I may have missed someone in the Top 100, but oddly enough I found only one other guy who's listed as 6'5", Tomas Berdych. But there are at least two stars at 6'4", Robin Soderling and Gael Monfils. Neither of those guys plays as forceful a game as Raonic, although Soderling hits with as much gusto. That forcefulness is a huge asset. It doesn't guarantee success for Raonic, but it certainly sets him apart from his ATP peers. It sets him further apart than does his height.

In fact, the guy to whom we can most usefully compare Raonic may be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Some of you may be surprised to learn that Tsonga can barely claim a place among the "big" men in tennis. He's just 6'2" (so, for that matter, is Andy Roddick), but Tsonga certainly plays like he's a few inches bigger. If  you didn't know better, you might guess he were 6'4" or 6'5". That's purely because of his power, his serve, and the aggression quotient in his game. Tsonga, like Raonic, plays bigger than he is.

Reading what other players say about Raonic, you'd almost believe that there's a god-given but almost unfair dimension to his success because of his size. But the bottom line is that in the big picture, Raonic isn't all that big, he just plays big—and in a way that few men of a comparable height can pull off. And that could take him far in this game, where so many big men choose to play smaller than they are.

[Ed.note: post has been edited to change Raonic's height to 6'5" as per most official sources. My old eyes misread his height at the official ATP website first time around. Hat top to the comment posters who caught the erro - PB]

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