Sports

The Ace Age

Tennis pro Milos Raonic has poise, drive, and a killer serve. Is that enough to make him a superstar?

From the September 2012 magazine
Illustration by Joe Morse

Memphis in late winter: sky the colour of the blues. Outside, a February gale tears past Graceland, past Chess Records, past Stax Records, arriving at the Racquet Club of Memphis in a whirl of dust and leaves and fast-food wrappers. Inside, Stadium Court hums with fluorescents and fake air. Between points, ’60s pop. Now, an explosive brisance thunders from the rafters.

“Fifteen–love,” says the umpire.

The final game of the 2012 Regions Morgan Keegan Championships, $277,915 (US) up for grabs. The crowd turns to observe twenty-one-year-old Canadian tennis player Milos Raonic. He drags his size 14 trainers cross-court, scuffing the toes like a kid double-shifting at Wendy’s. On television, he appears gangly. In the flesh, he looks like supple rainforest wood lashed into human simulacrum, his shoulders two plates of armour borrowed from the carapace of some -saurus or other.

He regards the ball girl. She throws over three US Open Wilsons. He rolls them in his right hand, discards one, pockets a second. He turns away from her and assumes an unaggressive crouch, bounces the ball eight times, touches it to the V of his racquet. Uncoiling until he reaches his full six foot five, he tosses the ball skyward, where it lingers, blazing under the lights.

Then he leaps up and forward and bends until he resembles, in profile, an upended Nike Swoosh. What follows is a Looney Tunes outtake. It’s as if he’s pounded a ceramic sink at the Austrian Jurgen Melzer, last year ranked the eighth-best tennis player in the world; as if the contents of a Home Depot have exploded over the net, nails and buzz saws and beams and washer-dryer units.

One hundred and thirty-eight miles an hour.

Ace.

“Thirty–love,” says the umpire.

The Racquet Club of Memphis is a farrago of tennis-related facilities east of the Mississippi River, host of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships since 1976. The event is managed and operated by Sharks Sports and Entertainment, which also owns the NHL’s San Jose franchise and the SAP Open Tennis Tournament. Three days before his first match in Memphis, Raonic won in San Jose, defeating Denis Istomin 7–6(3), 6–2. Auspiciously, that event functioned as his cotillion; he earned his first title there in 2011, rocketing up the rankings and into the Association of Tennis Professionals’ dreams: a photogenic, well-spoken North American, a player to vanquish the klatch of bandana-wearing Europeans crowded atop the field. (As far as Americans are concerned, fading Andy Roddick looks as if he hits the buffet table more often than the tennis court, and John Isner is a grump.) Raonic is the first Canadian athlete more commonly referred to by his given name. MEE-lowsh. Uttered with reverence, constantly, in the halls of the Racquet Club of Memphis and beyond.

“Man, Americans love him,” Austin Nunn, the adenoidal ATP public relations and marketing manager for the Americas, tells me. “He’s going to be a North American superstar. He isn’t in-your-face Canadian”—something I previously considered a contradiction in terms—”and the kid is just so mature. Around here, we say he’s twenty-one going on fifty. More and more, Americans are embracing him. Watch what happens at the US Open. He’s going to literally explode.”

“Explosive” is the adjective most often attached to his person. His great, metastasizing serve is his primary weapon. His record heading into Memphis is 14–1; he has now won eight matches in a row. In San Jose, one of his serves clocked in at 155 miles an hour, just one mile less than Ivo Karlovic’s record 156-mile-an-hour blast. (Every server is not created equal, nor is every radar gun. Serve speed records are contested business: Samuel Groth, a massive Australian ranked 258th, unleashed a 163-mile-an-hour bomb in South Korea, but it doesn’t stand because of variance in radar guns.) Milos is, commentators agree, the player most likely to break the 160-mile-per-hour barrier. As of this writing, over the course of 2012, he has served 578 aces in thirty-seven matches, an average of fifteen free points per contest, the equivalent of roughly four full games per match won without a ball coming his way. He has held 94 percent of his service games, the highest on the tour, higher even than Roger Federer’s 91 percent. In 2011, Milos won 53 percent of his second serves.

Such a serve becomes mythic. Pure, elemental wrath, the sort of thing Cormac McCarthy wrote of in his 1985 novel Blood Meridian: “Hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it.”

But The Serve is no guarantee of greatness. If that were so, David Wheaton would be a household name, while Federer, who is less powerful but more precise, would be preparing for a career as a cruise ship pro. Andre Agassi’s serve was unremarkable; Boris Becker’s arm was a concealed weapon. They played each other into the court on more than one occasion.

In Milos’s case, injuries have been a major concern. His junior career was interrupted twice, by a Jones fracture that required five months to heal, and by a broken wrist. His wrong-footed slide on the grass at Wimbledon 2011—horses get shot for less—resulted in a labral (cartilage) tear. This was surgically repaired and painstakingly rehabilitated, only to be followed by a medial collateral ligament injury (misdiagnosed, as it turns out) during the first rubber of the 2012 Davis Cup, where he was forced to pull out hours before facing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France.

Tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars rest on this question: is The Serve enough? The crowds love him, the ATP adores him; the sponsors, they melt. Barely four years into a pro career, Milos is already the most successful Canadian men’s singles tennis player of all time. But in assembling this unsmiling, taciturn HAL—a creation that doesn’t make mistakes and doesn’t care about intangibles—something may have been left on the workshop floor.

Another blast of ordnance. Memphis gasps. Windows rattle in Nashville.

One hundred and forty-one miles an hour.

Milos hangs his head, dog tired, as if he has just killed a man.

By the time Milos was eight, his parents knew. The moment that stands out for Dusan and Vesna Raonic occurred shortly after their move from Brampton, Ontario, to nearby Thornhill. And it had nothing to do with tennis.

It was, however, what Tim Hortons commercials are made of: skinny new kid of foreign parentage shows up at a local pickup roller hockey game. He doesn’t own a pair of Rollerblades, or know how to use them. That afternoon, his father sets off for a sporting goods store. The kid spends the night and the following day as frenzied autodidact. He shows up at the next game and plays roller hockey like Wayne Gretzky on trucker pills. Cheers, backslaps, cue close-up of glistening doughnuts.

The part you don’t see? “Blood is raining down his knees,” Vesna tells me. “But Milos doesn’t care. He will not stop.”

While there are all sorts of clinical terms for this behaviour, Vesna and Dusan are too old-world for kiddie yoga and meditation retreats. On a wintry evening in February, I meet them at a Starbucks in Thornhill, the northern labyrinth of strip malls and housing developments that downtown Torontonians refer to as “the sprawl.” Dusan is sad eyed and quiet; Vesna is bright eyed and gregarious.

Tennis parents have a reputation for unsavoury child rearing practices: the Williams paterfamilias using his daughters as specimens in a nature versus nurture experiment; Mike Agassi drilling for the American dream by way of Andre’s racquet. In this dubious pantheon, Dusan and Vesna register as a minority. They may have exacting standards, but they are not insane.

“For us, tennis was an accident,” Vesna says. “A flyer comes to the mailbox, and we needed something for both Milos and his brother to do. So we take them.”

It was March break, 1998, four years after the Raonic clan decamped from Podgorica, Montenegro—the former Titograd, Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—to Brampton. Like most people who actually lived in Yugoslavia during Josip Tito’s regime, their memories don’t converge with the country’s reputation as a commie backwater.

“We had a very good life, children had everything, we had everything,” Vesna says. “Everybody was surprised when we left. We said, ‘Okay, why not? We try.’ It was almost an adventure. Challenge. And to give the kids opportunities.” Milos was three at the time.

“The thing I want you to understand of Milos,” she continues, “is he is a very determined child.” That she still refers to him as a child is testament to his place in the Raonic family mythology: he is the baby, a monument to their will to make it in the new world, raised to represent their courage and tenacity in terra incognita. Brought up as much by his older siblings, Jelena and Momir, as by his parents, Milos is a collective expression of who they are. “My daughter, Jelena, says, ‘Mama, Milos completes us as a family,’ ” Vesna points out. “And she’s right. He does.”

His first time on a tennis court, the result of that fateful flyer, Milos was seven and had never held a racquet. He stomped home and informed his parents that he was willing to return, so long as he could play exclusively with the coaches. There was a healthy touch of John McEnroe’s petulance in the boy: he had no time for the other kids.

Dusan and Vesna were nonplussed. “We said, ‘No, Milos. You must go back and play nicely.’ ” By the end of the week, the coach called to ask that they send Milos back. They demurred. Life was busy; their move to Thornhill was pending. Tennis disappeared as abruptly as it had arrived.

“But he has an incredible memory, Milos,” Dusan says. Nearly a year later, unprompted, he said, “Tennis, Daddy. But proper. Professional.” At the time, no one understood why.

Back in Montenegro, if you were looking for answers to what are now googleable questions, you went to the local barber. So Dusan visited an Italian stylist at Yonge and Steeles, who told him that he should make the trip to the nearby Blackmore Tennis Club, run by a coach named Casey Curtis.

The first meeting went poorly. Curtis is in the business of developing talent, and that process costs a lot of money. In 2011, a Tennis Canada program called Building Tennis Communities counted 22,500 kids in Mississauga; North York, Ontario; and Surrey, BC, alone. Almost every suburban kid hits a ball with a racquet at some point. Few go through the rigorous development process that will make them mildly competitive: daily court time, camps in the summer, private coaching. If a youngster shows promise, a coach will often waive the fees and invest the time: fashioning professional material from the mess of prepubescence beats a classified advertising campaign. If a player is merely keen, parents can expect to drop more than $10,000 a year. Very often, early talent fries out, and all that’s left is a childhood spent on hard courts, learning how to be alone.

“How many tournaments has he won? ” Curtis wanted to know. Dusan stood alongside his son under the marshmallow glow of a winterized court and said, “None.” How many has he played? “None.” How many games has he won? “Zero.” Has he even played a game? “Um, no.”

Curtis hedged what he felt was a sure bet: Dusan and Milos could use an empty court at a discount, off-peak, six in the morning and ten at night. If Milos proved diligent, Curtis would reassess him.

For three months, without interruption, Dusan operated a machine that fired tennis balls at his boy, who punished himself like a stylite and drove himself like a prophet; he did not miss a single session, darkness or inclemency be damned. Talent, sure. But something else: a second spine, a bulletproof exoskeleton, lasers for eyes. He wasn’t pushed, he wasn’t cajoled. He showed up and hit green streaks into the night.

On the appointed date, Curtis watched Milos play and said, “I’ll take him.”

Milos and Curtis would work together twice a day, almost every day, for the next nine years.

Round two, Memphis. Dusan Raonic sits in the press box, front row. Thirteen years have passed since those father-son sessions at Blackmore. Next to him: Galo Blanco, Milos’s Spanish coach. They are solemn, intoning the occasional “Go, Milos” like a liturgy.

Milos faces the Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky, a consistent top seventy-five player. Dusan never watches his son serve. He turns his head to the right, leaning his chin on his shoulder, as if the energy of the blast depletes him. As if the power is a shared power—a battery on which the entire Raonic family must run.

One hundred and thirty-two miles an hour.

Ace.

Milos leads 6–4, 4–4.

Stakhovsky has the red-rimmed eyes and gloomy mien of an extra in a Roman Polanski film. According to his bio, he “enjoys reading Russian classics,” and he plays accordingly.

On court, between points, Milos is slow moving, dolorous. He does not make a sound. He doesn’t grunt, he doesn’t exclaim. He never eyes the umpire and does not query calls. On occasion, he will look over at his coach. Every point, won or lost, is greeted with the same hang of the head, erased from memory the moment it goes up on the board. He plays in a continuous present, a shrouded train that moves at precisely the same speed from point A to point Z. This evenness of disposition, applied uniformly throughout a match, can seem at times a greater force than The Serve.

Once, an errant shot bounces into a ball girl’s shirt. She blushes wildly, and the crowd laughs. Milos stares at her with an utter lack of comprehension, as if he has just woken from a trance. She looks back at him, having gleaned a fundamental about tennis that she could never learn with racquet in hand. On court, as Stakhovsky might know better than most, you are a character from the Russian canon: utterly abandoned, alone.

Milos crouches, swaying side to side. As Stakhovsky raises his racquet, Milos straightens, eyes widening as if something vaguely interesting is happening on the other side of the net.

The serve comes to his forehand. He leaps up, hangs there. While airborne, he performs a sort of ladling motion. The ball screams toward Stakhovsky’s backhand, but he isn’t in the same time zone. Milos’s secondary weapon: the bestial forehand.

Game Milos. Five points later: match.

Dusan rises. He has the same shoulder blades as his son, the great genetic gift. But on Dusan, it is a scholar’s hunchback— an engineering professor’s occupational hazard. He blinks at the camera flashes and disappears down the players’ tunnel. His son shakes Stakhovsky’s hand, and then stays to autograph big yellow novelty balls.

Later, I sit with Milos in the squash court the ATP has designated for player interviews. The walls are pocked with the ghosts of games past, the hardwood protected by humid carpet. Milos sits before me in a track suit, legs spread, knees like anvils. The most notable thing about him, besides the fact that he is very large, is that he has not yet fully worked his voice in; it “derails,” as a French journalist puts it.

He tolerates the dumb-ass questions in press scrums in a way that makes you think: finishing school. I have never spoken to a twenty-one-year-old this polished. He knows I’m after the conceptual rather than the conjugal—no dating scoops for me, but rather the holy pith of Foster-Wallace-cum-Nabokov tennis prose.

“Tennis and math. They’re linked,” he says. “Everyone uses statistics on my team. We look at what percentage of second serve points on my serve I’m winning, and what points on his second serve I’m losing. What is my percentage of first serve returns? Those are critical numbers. These numbers need to keep rising if I hope to keep winning.”

Other numbers are important, too. Milos has collected $1,483,700 (US) in prize money so far, and more in appearance fees and sponsorship deals. But should his career stall, he will not come out of the sport even: coaching costs of up to $2,500 a week, practice courts, international travel. Stakhovsky complained that he spent over $210,000 in game expenses last year, and close to $110,000 on flights alone, leaving him, after some rudimentary accounting, with less than nothing. The French Open brings in $174 million (US) in revenue and pays out $24 million (US) in prize money—nowhere near the fifty-fifty split one sees in, say, the NBA. The threat of a players’ strike looms. Thus the ATP treats players with religious deference, in preparation for internecine war. (“Months,” ATP’s Austin Nunn said to me of how far ahead I needed to book a feature interview with Milos. “Months.” Long pause. “Months.”)

The stakes for Milos are as high as they are for his on-the-financial-rivet peers: the nine critical years of development at the hands of Curtis; the 10,000 hours of serves and groundstrokes and volleys and two-handed backhands; his parents taking him to practice twice a day; the special dispensations from school administrators for him to leave early; his siblings, the moment they are old enough to drive, pitching in; never eating lunch outside of the car; Dusan taking a retirement package in 2008 to focus on his son’s development. No downtime. No holes in the schedule. No room for the errant. Money hosed at him as if he were a Saudi princeling on a gambling weekend in Macau.

Because of this, for Milos tennis is not a game in any meaningful sense of the term. “As kids, we were always told to excel,” he tells me. “It was expected. And that’s why I chose tennis. It’s something I could control. Like mathematics. I’m not dependent on teammates. I’m dependent on me. I don’t like waiting around for what other people are going to do. I like to excel my own way, on my own terms.”

In all of this, there is an inherent tragedy in his game. The tennis serve exemplifies the failure of the human being as a machine; it is where the metaphor of the machine breaks down. Much has been written on the kinesiology of a tennis serve—papers that combine Newtonian law, the Magnus effect, complex anatomy—but what it really amounts to is magic. A potpourri of size, strength, flexibility, hand-eye coordination, rage, stillness, length of thumb, width of index finger, practice, luck. In a series of motions a player will repeat up to 80,000 times in a career, there exist such variables as the fault or the double fault. Nothing presents our fallibility with more eloquence than elite athletes bungling the only shot they can properly control. Ninety-four percent of one’s service points is not 100 percent.

With this in mind, I ask Milos how he keeps so calm.

“What Galo, my coach, has preached is more peace and less panic,” he says. “That I should keep a flatline of energy. So I try not to get pumped up, I try not to think too far ahead, I focus on the moment. I play much better tennis this way. I don’t self-destruct.”

Milos rises and shakes my hand. Interview as algorithm: he has not put one word out of place; he has kept the interview precisely within the ATP’s parameters. Twenty-one going on fifty. Austin Nunn is positively glowing.

Tennis regency is a baton. In recent memory: Sampras, Agassi, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic. And sport loves a daddy narrative. In late 2011, Milos played Pete Sampras at a match dubbed the Face-Off: Hero vs. Prodigy, at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. “Hopefully, Milos remembers that I was his idol. That I could be his father,” kidded Sampras. The match went 7–6(7–4), 6–1 in Milos’s favour. “He says Sampras is his idol, but I don’t know,” Blanco tells me. “They play very different games.”

To understand why this matters, we must engage in the age-old tennis pursuit of critical theory, which I’ll call “disassembling a player’s lineage.” And the first concept we need to understand is that lineage often has little to do with a player’s mentor or his long-running coach, and everything to do with his first love, his fire starter, the poster on his childhood wall.

Sampras, whose rise coincided with the end of the Cold War, reigned throughout the ’90s as the ultimate physical expression of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” It wasn’t that he was unbeatable—although fourteen Grand Slams make for a compelling statement of outright dominance. Rather, his style of play suggested the looming possibility of the invincible. His serve-and-volley combo resembled mixed martial arts in its violence: he would slam opposing players a metre and a half behind the baseline; while they wheezed for breath, he would kneecap them with a low, slinky lob. The nature of this orchestration, its haiku simplicity—Sampras almost killed tennis as a spectator sport.

But while power ungarnished by histrionics is Milos’s lodestar, to fully comprehend his métier we have to go back further. Sampras revered Rod Laver, the Australian who dominated during the ’60s and played a serve-volley game with far more subtlety than the players he begat. He was dazzlingly athletic, with a Popeye-sized left forearm that unleashed Samprasian carnage, yet with greater vocabulary. His cross-court movement equalled that of an Agassi or a Nadal. That said, Milos is not Laver reanimated. In a perfect world, he would reference Richard Alonzo “Pancho” Gonzales, the self-destructive giant of the game, Laver’s coeval for a short, beautiful moment in the late ’50s, a power server and baseline regent who a certain species of tennis fanatic—sun bitten and martini cured and very old—would insist, on pain of death, was the greatest of all time.

In tennis, lineage counts more than in any other sport, because it is a solitary endeavour hitched to generations of precedent. When Milos builds his game around Sampras—when he would do well to embrace Gonzales and his use of size, speed, power, and athleticism—we can comprehend the limits such thinking imposes. We understand the inflexibility in Milos’s game, the addiction to the free points off the serve. For fourteen years, his parents, his siblings, his coaches, Tennis Canada, Wilson, Lacoste, and the ATP have invested in, and gambled on, The Serve. Had Gonzales and his capriciousness been the model, then perhaps we would see a different player. Less polished, not so well spoken, more inebriated—yet frequently, deliriously brilliant. But it’s a different time. Milos is designed as a product. And in an age of perfection, perhaps wildness is the lone variable that skews the stats in your favour.

Like everyone in Memphis, Benjamin Becker (no relation to Boris) has run the numbers. Because of a recent injury, he is ranked 284th in the world. And while this Becker is somewhat famous for defeating Agassi in the final match of that matchless career, Milos seems unstoppable. Indeed, in his third-round fixture, he dispatched Olivier Rochus in a game notable only because, stunningly, his serve was broken. Asked what he was thinking when that happened, Milos said, “I was thinking that I hope he doesn’t do it again.”

He didn’t.

In this semifinal, the outcome is never in doubt. Milos serves, and those serves are unreturnable. He has his change-up working: he blasts a 140-mile-an-hour serve, follows it up with a 126-mile-an-hour dawdler that lands in the middle of the service box. Becker gets a whiff of neither.

But he does get a whiff of the final effort in the fifth game of the first set. Milos leans in and fires an inscrutable shot that scrambles Becker at the baseline. Becker turns, and the ball whaps him in the lower back, loud as a gunshot. By way of apology, Milos slowly raises his hand in that sea anemone manner of his.

“Very tough,” says Becker at the post-game press conference. “His serve is very tough. I dunno—Karlovic, maybe? That is the only other one like it. He moves quite well for his size. I wanted to go aggressive; he likes to push and go for the big shot. So you have to be aggressive. But from the base, he was very strong. I don’t know. Very tough. He doesn’t make mistakes—not too many, anyway. Good serve, yes, but he backs it up. Potential? When you have a serve like that, you have great potential. Yes. Very much so.”

And on being hit? “He was serving left, and I thought he would go for the T. I guessed.” Becker looks down at his hands. “I guessed wrong.”

He does not know how to play.”

At first, I think Blanco is being uncharitable regarding Becker. Then I realize he is talking about Milos, the player he has been coaching for the past year and three months. The player he has bet the farm on.

Blanco once reached the quarter-finals of the French Open. He now runs 4Slam Tennis in Barcelona, where he helps turn out pros through the successful Spanish system. Milos graduated high school a year early, with an 82 percent average. (His capacity for calculus and algebra was in the hundredth percentile.) He moved to Barcelona following a two-year stint at Tennis Canada, where he was billeted with a family in Montreal.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a couple of continents to raise a tennis player. When Milos made the decision to turn pro, forgoing a scholarship at the University of Virginia, Dusan and Vesna did not balk. While he took correspondence courses from Athabasca University, they gave him two years to reach the top 100. The choice to move to Spain was simple: playing the Canadian circuit was beyond a dead end. Now Milos and Blanco live and travel together, a partnership that can’t be compared to a marriage, but rather a queasy über-bromance that transcends anything a normal, well-adjusted human should ever encounter, let alone endure. All of the coddling, all of the together time, all of the calf and psychological massages, all of the tough love—none of it compensates for the fact that the tennis player plays every point alone, without counsel, without the murmur of a human voice in his ear.

“Mentally,” Blanco continues, “Milos has a lot to improve. He’s very young, and sometimes he expects too much from himself. The step he has between himself and the top players is more mental.”

We are seated near the players’ lounge, in the racquet club basement. Blanco has pinched features, a neatly trimmed goatee, and elaborate spectacle frames. He would be considered overly serious if he were commanding the US naval fleet during a global conflagration. I mention Milos’s maturity. Blanco types something into his smart phone and looks up at me.

“Pfft,” he says. “I agree outside the court, maybe. But inside? No. Too many things he’s not used to. He’s only proper professional last year. So he can’t be too mature inside the court. How? His forehand gets better, but he has to miss less. He has to learn to play different shots. Every day, he gets better.”

When I ask him about Milos’s perceived physical fragility, he looks at me sharply. “I’m not saying he’s fragile. No, no. The injury last year was bad luck. He has a lot to learn, but he’s not fragile.”

Clearly, Blanco does not want to be here. He wants to be at a restaurant, calming down his boy over steak and Cokes. They will talk about anything, everything—the state of FC Barcelona, the state of the NBA, Cristiano Ronaldo’s hair products—but they will not talk tennis.

I ask Blanco about The Serve, about its own inherent frailty, but he pretends not to hear. He leaves to feed his charge a flank of cow.

Jurgen Melzer is not cannon fodder. He wants the Regions Morgan Keegan trophy, his first career ATP 500 title. At thirty, he plays as if time has him by the throat. To win this, having rebounded from a back injury, would be a resurrection. To win this, Melzer will need more than his heavy artillery. He will need a rifle, and a rusty shiv.

Melzer wins the toss; Milos’s serve.

He takes the first two points off his forehand. Then a 139-mile-an-hour ace. Then a 144-mile-an-hour ace. Game: 2–1, Milos.

A 135-mile-an-hour serve from Melzer. His forehand is all mustard, his backhand hot-sauce piquant. Game: 2–2, Melzer. Then game Milos. Only eight minutes have elapsed; my coffee is still hot enough to burn my tongue.

Melzer brings the game forward, trying to neutralize the thermo-nukes from the opposing baseline. On the fifth set, which unfolds in two minutes, he mutters to himself, makes small, tennis-like gestures with his racquet, clicks his tongue.

The Austrian prods for a chink, finds one: Milos’s lumbering volley return. He lobs gently, testing. Milos pops the ball into the net: 3–3, Melzer.

Milos wrests free: three aces at three different angles at three different speeds. They sit, towel off. The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA.” Melzer stalks to the opposing service box; Milos waits for him to pass, then rises wearily.

Melzer bears down. He strafes the baseline, then yanks Milos forward like a puppy in training. Melzer finds another chink: a backhand that has no brio. A moment of frustration from Milos: he flicks his racquet, a gesture that’s imperceptible unless you are used to his reserve. It’s 40–30. He looks astonishingly young. Next point, Milos slams the ball into the net: 6–5.

He’s derailed. The crowd, that primal part of us that knows a mortal wound when we see one, understands that he is finished. In no other sport—not in boxing, not in cycling, nowhere— do you see players crack the way you do in tennis. They shrink on the court, their moves reduced to a wan mime of the game. You smell the souring of their chemicals, watch the fault line move up through their psyche. The official terminology is perfect: “broken.”

The first set belongs to Melzer, 7–5.

Between sets, Milos whispers, “Shhh,” when Blanco and his father say his name.

Blanco gives a tart little smile, and watches his player unspool on the way to a second tiebreaker. He is not in control. He is not playing his way. The last point is a weak forehand into the net. Today he has met a consciousness, a sensibility he could not dominate. Melzer raises his hands and runs up to his coach. They hug. His back heaves with relief.

You can’t win every week,” says Reggie Barnes, managing director of Morgan Keegan and Company, as he hands Milos the lesser trophy.

Milos chuckles graciously. “Thank you, Morgan Keegan, as well for the support,” he says into a microphone, “and I hope nothing but the best for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for the amazing things they’re doing.” Austin Nunn swoons.

Milos’s 2012 will march on. He takes ten days off, then drops out of Miami with an ankle injury. He looks suave in national ad campaigns that support the inevitable Milos Raonic Foundation. He pounds Andy Murray into the court at Barcelona, a huge win, only his thirty-fifth game on clay. Then loses his thirty-sixth match to David Ferrer. He bows out of Roland Garros (the French Open) in the third match, after a valiant five-set battle with clay specialist Juan Monaco.

In the hallways after the Memphis match, a tennis blogger walks by me and says, “Jesus, he’s a nice guy. Did you hear that about the children’s hospital? ” And I think back to something Canadian doubles legend Daniel Nestor told me: “He’s the best player/athlete we’ve ever had. He has a shot at being consistent top ten material.”

Maybe. All those millions of balls smacked throughout a boyhood, and out there tonight, a crowd once again reminded that life’s essential precariousness is never more evident than in a young tennis pro. A foot in the wrong place. A mind that wanders. A loss that never lifts. All that work. All the people who have suspended their lives to fashion this creature.

“I had a great practice with Milos Raonic,” wrote world number one Novak Djokovic on his website recently. “Great guy, great server.”

If Milos stalls, if his backhand doesn’t awaken, if his short game doesn’t develop, if he doesn’t build himself from the ground up every game, every match, every life-draining serve, then Djokovic’s words will stand as an epitaph. The Serve is, after all, tennis’s grand joke. Control is always an illusion. Milos needs a rifle, and a rusty shiv. And if he really is more boy than man, a giant version of the kid who spent cold nights playing a machine operated by his father, then he has every chance of acquiring them.

Milos walks off the court to sign big yellow novelty balls. His coach and his father wait in the training room. They will eat steaks, and drink Cokes, and talk about anything but tennis.

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  • nina76

    I had faith in Milos but I don’t think he will make it big for as long as Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Federer are still playing. Nor any other of the upcoming (not so upcoming anymore) youngsters like Dimitrov, Tomic… Maybe Tomic is capable, he looks the most talented one. Milos could be a big name soon, but he still looks like a kid to me, vulnerable, mentally fragile. At his age Nadal or Djokovic had already won slams! He’s not even able to win a set against one of them these days. But time will tell. I don’t think we will see another generation of super champions like the one we have now. These things maybe happen once in two decades.