Believe In The Sleeve?

The pool of colorful, interesting characters in tennis—something for which the sport once was justifiably famous—has gradually diminished over the years. That’s been the downside of the spartan developmental process that has turned tennis players into the superb athletes and astonishing shotmakers they are today.

As a group, tennis players are mainstream millennials, all the way down to man buns and the sporty German vehicles parked in their garages at home. That’s why Milos Raonic is a particularly refreshing character looming on the ATP landscape in 2016. “Towering” may be the more accruate term, and not just because at 6’5”, with arms like pipe cleaners and long, stilt-like legs, Raonic appears even taller.

Just last week, Raonic whacked top-seeded Roger Federer in the Brisbane final, 6-4, 6-4. It had to be a particularly satisfying win; Raonic’s former coach Ivan Ljubicic dumped him late last year to strike up a new relationship with Federer. Okay, Federer hired Ljubicic partly—largely?—to help him figure out how to beat Novak Djokovic, not Raonic. But Raonic, who’s now being coached by former French Open champion and fleeting former No. 1 Carlos Moya, did an excellent job avoiding the distractions that might have harmed his chances in the final.

“It does great things [for me],” Raonic said of the win in his post-match press conference. “It signifies within [my] team how concrete and good the work we’re doing is.”

So here we are, with Raonic once again threatening to make his unique presence felt on a big stage—the same stage where we first noticed the now 25-year-old ace maker. At the 2011 Australian Open, Raonic won seven matches, starting from qualifying, before his run was finally halted by pocket-rocket David Ferrer. But more surprising than Raonic’s breakout was his steady, orderly rise from that point onward.

Even more surprising to some is Raonic’s lack of a breakthrough at the majors, despite having been ranked inside the Top 10—reaching as high as No. 4 last year—since March 2014.

Granted, Raonic made the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2014 (where he lost to Federer), but he’s been as far as the quarterfinals at a major on only two other occasions. The record looks especially tepid given his giant, serve-based game. This is a guy who, if he puts it together, can pretty much serve anyone off the court.

Perhaps it’s best to look at all this as yet another element that makes Raonic unique, a difficult guy to read or predict. He’s never made pronouncements about his goals. He doesn’t talk trash. It’s easy to mistake his quiet, almost brooding manner for a lack of champion’s fire. That was the mistake made with the young Stefan Edberg.

Raonic certainly seems to have sprung from an original mold. Born in Montenegro, he moved to Canada age 3. He grew up in Thornhill, Ontario, and plays for Canada, but Raonic lives in Monte Carlo. You don’t get a strong sense of where he’s from, one way or another. He’s a fan of FC Barcelona and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. What, no hockey?

Even his appearance is novel. Raonic looks like he just stepped out of a black-and-white television set broadcasting a 1950s sitcom—Father Knows Best, or Leave it to Beaver. His cheeks are as smooth and unblemished as a baby’s bottom, and his old-school haircuts—“hairdos” might be a better word—are so studiously perfect that they’ve inspired a number of Twitter feeds, including @Milos_Hair.

Last year, Raonic created another trademark: He began to wear a full-length sleeve on his right arm (#BelieveInTheSleeve), a habit which has since been copied by Australian sensation Nick Kyrgios.

The sleeve and haircut are essentially cosmetic, but Raonic’s physique is also somewhat unusual. He looks like he was put together from scattered spare parts—his limbs are unusually long and his head is small. He lumbers along with a slight hunch, belying how quick he is around the court. All of which adds up to a package that is very appealing to, among others, his high-profile girlfriend, model Danielle Knudson.

Raonic’s game has a similar, one-of-a-kind look, owing to a combination of his inherent athleticism and the inborn limitations of his size. A man with legs and arms as long as his ought to be a regular clodhopper, which in tennis translates to a hit-or-miss serve-and-volley player. No so with Raonic. He was able to crack the Top 10 without making the best use of his two greatest weapons, his serve and forehand. Against all but the best players, Raonic was still able to bang out enough aces and powder enough forehand winners to protect his place in the pecking order.

However, it became clear as Raonic approached the promised land that his return game and his general quickness and mobility were not up to snuff when it came to the truly elite players. That’s where Ljubicic came into the picture, in the spring of 2013. His mission, largely fulfilled, was to convince Raonic that he needed to impose himself, that he had to dictate with that booming serve—not just to go for aces but to use the near ace to set up a killing, third-shot forehand winner or approach.

That program went smoothly. Raonic became a deadlier player on Ljubicic’s watch. What he did not become, though, is a tougher competitor. That remains unfinished business.

Last year, while not exactly representative because of of two injuries (foot and back), was still telling. Raonic lost to eventual champion and top seed Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the Australian Open quarterfinals, fading after losing a 7-5 first-set tiebreaker and a close second set. No shame in that, given Djokovic’s 2015 results. Raonic missed the French Open with a foot injury that required surgery, but then was out-served and out-gutted in the third round at Wimbledon by a younger player Raonic needed to keep under his thumb, 20-year-old Kyrgios. Raonic was knocked out of US Open in the third round by Feliciano Lopez, and he missed the final three weeks of 2015 with a bad back. He finished the year ranked No. 14—the first time in his career that his year-end ranking did not improve from the previous year.

“It was tough to see myself slip a little bit, even though I knew it was not necessarily strictly to my tennis level but outside things,” Raonic admitted after his win in Brisbane. “Those things were hard to accept … and in some ways also depressing to deal with. Every single year until now my ranking had been going up. That’s the thing I was most proud of. To see that slip was hard to accept and also very motivating.

“With the difficulties I had last year, it’s maybe a good way for me to show the other guys I will face going in Melbourne, you know, that I’ve got my stuff back together and I can play some good tennis again.”

Just how Moya will attempt to help Raonic get to that next, elite level is an intriguing question. In some ways, the 1998 French Open champ seems an odd choice as coach. He won only four of his 20 titles on hard courts, Raonic’s surface of choice; all of the Spaniard’s other wins were on clay. And Moya was not known as a particularly good mover—an area where Raonic can always use work—or as a hard worker off the court. Like Raonic, though, he did have a big forehand, and he was adept at setting himself up to hit it inside-out.

That’s alright, though. Raonic has shown us that in ways large and small, cosmetic and germane, that he marches to the beat of a slightly different drummer. It’s a beat that’s welcome in a game that’s has never been better, nor less diverse. And who knows what the full tune will be?

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