Find a Canadian athlete who had a better 2011 than Milos Raonic. The 22-year-old became Canada’s highest-ranked Association of Tennis Professionals men’s singles player ever, his breakthrough beginning a year ago at the Australian Open before notching his first tournament win in San Jose. Though hip surgery stalled his dream season, he was still named ATP Newcomer of the Year—and his victory at the Chennai Open on Jan. 8 proved 2011 was no fluke. He spoke with Canadian Business staff writer Jeff Beer.
Age at which he moved to Canada from Montenegro: 3
Age at which he took up tennis: 8
ATP Ranking to begin 2011: 152
ATP Ranking to begin 2012: 31
2011 ATP earnings: $674,966
Score by which he beat his idol, Pete Sampras, in a November exhibition match at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre: 7-6, 6-1
You had a pretty amazing year. How has your life changed with the increased media and fan attention, and how do you balance that with your expectations for yourself?
My life hasn’t changed too much. Sure, some days when I’m back in Toronto I wish I had a bit more time to spend with family and friends because I’m on the road so much. But obviously there are perks, like tickets to sporting events and things like that.
In terms of expectations, obviously I read and see what people are saying about my tennis, but ultimately I’ve always played the game for myself, so I put more pressure on myself than anyone else [does]. When I am frustrated or disappointed in myself, it’s not because I’m not meeting others’ expectations—it’s because I’m not meeting my own.
People can have their expectations, but I know how much work goes into it and how long it’s going to take and what the reasonable outlook is. I play with the top guys at every tournament, and I really use that as a barometer for where and how I need to improve.
What are the biggest challenges of being on the road for most of the year?
Health is a big part of it—just trying to stay healthy, dealing with jet lag, staying on top of meals. With all the different countries we go to, you can’t always just eat the same thing, so it takes a lot of preparation and planning. I learn from other players who have been there before about what’s good, what’s not. On the mental side, the unfamiliarity is tough sometimes. You never have that comfort of “I’m craving this steak and I know where to get it,” like when you’re at home. The lack of familiarity that doesn’t allow you to do simple things without having to overthink them can tire you out. It’ll get easier the more tournaments I go to, but last year pretty much every one was a first-time experience.
Tennis is pretty unique in that the players have no contact with coaches during a match. How do you learn to deal with the ups and downs?
It comes through experience and is not something that can really be taught. That said, there are guidelines I try to follow. The most important one would probably be, as much as possible, to stay in the moment. In tennis there are a lot of mistakes, but there’s also a lot of time to find your way around and get back into it. So it’s important not to dwell on what’s happened. You still need to be aware and recognize patterns in an opponent’s play. And to not get too far ahead of yourself, because that, along with dwelling on past shots, can be catastrophic.
You really have to try and not get carried away thinking about what could have happened or what could happen and instead focus on what is happening. If you’re not in the moment, a few games can go by very quickly, and before you know it you’re looking back and wondering why you lost eight of 11 points. It’s a bad feeling when you go through a match and can’t recall why certain things happened. Tennis can be a long game, but those 20 seconds between points gives you time to really relax and get your head back into it.
How do you mentally prepare for a big match?
Since we play so many days all year, it’s more just habits you develop. I eat a bit before I play. I like to warm up for a long time, I stay pretty quiet and don’t talk to many people before playing. Mentally, because I can’t control what my opponents do, I focus on the thing I can control—which is my own game.
Last year, you talked about trying to improve your on-court composure and attitude. How has that gone, and how do you feel you’ve improved most?
I feel there’s a big difference. The most difficult time to keep your composure is when things aren’t going as you hoped. It’s easy to be an angel when you’re confident and winning. The most important thing I’ve learned this year is acceptance: in that frustrating moment, just being able to accept whatever happened or is happening and move on from it. At the end of the day, tennis is a game between two people. If you have a bad day, you can’t make a list of other players who could’ve beaten you on that day—you only have to beat the person on the other side of the net on that day. And if it doesn’t go well, you have to be able to move on and focus on your next opponent, and hopefully come out on the better end.
Do you have any in-match routines that help you maintain focus?
There are certain points where you feel you might be panicking, so you have a routine to calm down and remain focused. When I’m serving, I just try to focus on my serve. It’s such a big weapon for me and can help keep the points short, so I start focusing on that. If I’m serving well, everything usually falls into place. When I’m returning, I just try to take my time and not rush.
So what do you do to relax off the court?
One thing I’ve learned about relaxing from the European culture is enjoying mealtime and taking a longer time for it. I travel with my coach and physiotherapist, so there’s always at least three of us when we go to dinner. We don’t rush through it, in and out in 45 minutes. We tend to stretch it out to an hour-and-a-half or two hours, talking and eating at a relaxed pace. I spend a lot of time in my room watching TV shows and movies, quiet things like that. I probably also spend more time than I’m proud of on my phone chatting with back home.
When it comes to TV, I’m mostly into comedy series like How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family. For movies, I’m open to just about anything, but I do struggle a bit with horror movies—especially sleeping in hotels all the time in unfamiliar places. So I stick more to comedy and action.