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Don’t Mess With The Milos

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Milos Raonic’s defeat of Tomas Berdych in the Thailand Open got me thinking about the young Canadian and the way perceptions of him have changed over the course of 2013. Milos was (almost) the darling of the tennis world last year, the brightest young player on tour, at least until Jerzy Janowicz’s run at the Paris Masters. Milos finished 2012 ranked No. 13, a huge jump from No. 31 in 2011. This year his ranking has held steady, even creeping up a bit to his current No. 11 (it was at No. 10 briefly), although overall his 2013 season has seemed mildly disappointing for two reasons:

1) He still hasn’t gotten past the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament
2) His Canada Masters results, which saw him cheat his way into the final (although he may have beaten Del Potro despite his dishonesty), and once he got to the final he was utterly demolished by Rafael Nadal, affirming the view that, unlike the similarly aged Jerzy Janowicz, Raonic may neither have the head nor the overall game to win a major tournament, at least against a true elite player.

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Combining both we see a young player who hasn’t been able to take his game up a significant notch from the previous year and may end this year just outside the Top 10 for the second year in a row.

But let’s take a step back for a moment. Milos is only disappointing if we’re expecting him to be an elite player. What he has established is that he’s a legit Top 20 player and has a good chance of soon becoming a fixture in the Top 10. Let’s see how Milos matches up against the current Top 10 players in the game:

1. Novak Djokovic: 0-1
2. Rafael Nadal: 0-4
3. Andy Murray: 2-1
4. David Ferrer: 0-4
5. Tomas Berdych: 1-0
6. Roger Federer: 0-4
7. Juan Martin Del Potro: 1-0
8. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: 0-2
9. Richard Gasquet: 1-1
10. Stanislas Wawrinka: 0-1

Total: 5-18

That record is nothing to be proud of, but note that if we are selective and look at only Murray, Berdych, Del Potro, and Gasquet, Raonic is 5-2, whereas against Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Ferrer, Tsonga, and Wawrinka he’s 0-16 — some of the matches which were played in 2011, before he really came into his own.

If we look beyond the wins and losses, we see a player that has been a tough opponent for a couple of years now. His two losses to Tsonga, for instance, have been very close – two three setters in best-of-three matches, one at Indian Wells this year and one at the Olympics last year in which he lost a tiebreak 25-23. Against David Ferrer, Milos is 0-4 but three of those matches were in 2011. He did lose to Ferrer in Barcelona last year, but it was two 7-6 sets.

If we look at 2013 alone, Raonic is 37-17. He just defeated No. 5 Berdych in Bangkok for the title, the fifth of his career, all five of which have been ATP 250 events. At the US Open he lost a grueling five-setter to No. 9 Richard Gasquet, a match that included three tiebreaks. In Cincinnati he lost to a very hot John Isner in the third round; in Canada he lost to Nadal in the final, but not until he made it through a grueling gauntlet: Jeremy Chardy, Mikhail Youzhny, Juan Martin Del Potro, Ernests Gulbis, and Vasek Pospisil.

In Halle he lost to a resurgent Gael Monfils; he also lost to another comeback player, Fernando Verdasco, in Madrid. In Roland Garros to an ever-dangerous Kevin Anderson, in Rome to a similarly dangerous Phillip Kohlschreiber. In Barcelona he lost to the greatest clay-courter of all time, Rafael Nadal.

Milos had a few rather surprising losses as well:  against No. 83 Marinko Matosevic in Washington, No. 64 Igor Sijsling in Wimbledon, No. 54 Ivan Dodig in Eastbourne, and No. 168 Jack Sock in Memphis early in the year. He also lost to No. 49 Jarkko Nieminen in Monte Carlo, and No. 48 Grigor Dimitrov in Brisbane at the beginning of the year (Dimitrov being perhaps an even more talented and disappointing youngster).

To put it another way, there’s little rhyme or reason to Milos’s record this year. He’s 0-4 against Big Four opponents but has held his own against everyone else — a 37-13 record, or 74%.

So what’s ahead for the big Canadian? Critics doubt his ability to be a true elite player or to win a Slam due to his relatively poor movement and the lack of diversity in his game. Yet there are other, similar players at or near the top of the game – his recently defeated foe, Tomas Berdych, comes to mind.

It does seem unlikely that Milos Raonic will become an elite player on the level of the current Big Four. But he’s already playing a high level of tennis and is still not yet quite 23 years old. He’s part of a generation of players — including Dimitrov and Janowicz, but also Bernard Tomic, Ryan Harrison, Jack Sock, David Goffin, and Pablo Carreno Busta — that has no clear elite players, but could be squabbling for titles as the current elite — especially Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray — begin to show signs of age in another year or three. So if we expected Milos Raonic to be that elite talent that is so lacking in his generation of players born in the early 90s we will likely be disappointed, but let’s not forget that he is, and will remain, a formidable player and will be in or near the Top 10 for the foreseeable future.

Photo Courtesy of globalite (Creative Commons license)

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About Jonathan Northrop

Jonathan Northrop is the resident in-house analyst of numbers, trends and how they can be applied with an eye on tennis history. You can contact Jonathan via: eldude@tennisfrontier.com
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