Sports

How Milos Raonic Found His Groove

The number one rule of winning? Don’t focus on results

Photograph by Vale Alemanno
Vale Alemanno / CC BY 2.0 Milos Raonic.

Five years ago I met with John McEnroe on the Upper West Side of New York City at Barney Greengrass, the famous Jewish deli. His agent joined us. We met to discuss a new memoir McEnroe was writing as a follow up to his successful 2002 memoir You Cannot Be Serious. McEnroe had already been contracted by Orion UK to do the new book and the job now was to find a writer to help him actually write it. This meeting was following on the heels of the massive success of Andre Agassi’s Open and the thinking in the publishing world was that McEnroe had it in him to write a book just as entertaining and just as raw as Agassi’s, but with more humour and intelligence, given that McEnroe is still widely seen as the ultimate combination of walk and talk.

Barney Greengrass was hopping that day, as it is every day. McEnroe was seated at the back, facing out. He was wearing jeans, a scruffy T-shirt, and a wide-billed baseball cap (in the days before Rickie Fowler and various rappers had popularized the look). I sat down. We exchanged pleasantries. Talked about Edmonton (which he knew and liked from hanging out with Gretzky and Messier back in the day). Talked about the Upper West Side. We were having some laughs. Then, he asked me what I thought of You Cannot Be Serious. I told him I thought it was enjoyable but not penetrating.

“What do you mean?” he said bluntly. His agent grimaced and looked at the ceiling.

“You were holding yourself back,” I said, figuring I had nothing to lose by matching him for bluntness. “It was all exposition and no introspection. It was all about what happened but not why it happened.”

He sat back, stared at me under the brim of his cap. His agent radiated discomfort, no doubt expecting a scene of some sort. But the Deus ex machina of the waiter arrived and brusquely demanded our order. They don’t stand on ceremony at Barney Greengrass. McEnroe pointed at me, indicating I should order first. I ordered a sandwich of some kind and a soda.

“And he’ll have the matzo ball soup with two extra matzo balls,” said McEnroe.

“I’ve never actually had matzo ball soup,” I said, which was my polite Canadian way of saying I think I can order for myself.

“You’ll have it. You’ll like it. And you need the extra matzo balls. Trust me.”

I submitted to McEnroe’s expertise. When our lunch came, the waiter put a giant tub of matzo ball soup in front of me. The doughy beige dumplings were floating on a sea of oily chicken stock and I could feel my heart begin to race from the amount of sodium I was about to ingest. I picked up my spoon and was ready to dip it into the broth when McEnroe stopped me.

“Matzo ball first,” he ordered.

He and his agent watched me dissect a dumpling and put a lump of it into my mouth. It was scalding hot. I ignored my blistered tongue and bit into the dough ball. It was maybe the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted.

“That,” I said, after swallowing, “is fantastic!”

McEnroe didn’t smile or gloat. He merely picked up his own spoon as an acknowledgement of his understanding of what was required in a certain situation, of what mixture of elements would lead to the best outcome for his pupil. “Barney Greengrass,” he said, looking around the restaurant. He added three words that he thought sufficiently unpacked his ordering strategy. “Matzo ball soup.”

On May 27, 2016, John McEnroe began ordering matzo ball soup for Milos Raonic. Metaphorically, of course, though you never know with McEnroe, who was hired by Raonic for the grass court season to advise him on the nuances of the surface. They are a study in contrasts—from style to manner to their game. Raonic is the quietest and most coiffed player on tour, whereas McEnroe was, and still is, the bad boy of tennis who had the wild hair and wild game. But everything I learned from watching Raonic and listening to McEnroe over the last two weeks suggests the intervention was more about psychology than strategy.

It’s never short of astonishing how high up the food chain an athlete can sit and yet still be mentally fragile. It must have been something like this with Raonic, that he was a tower of strength to a certain level, a level where he knew he had physical superiority, but that once he got to the level where his physical superiority evaporated (let’s call this the Djokovic Line), then so did his mental strength. This was precisely what happened to him at the semi-final stage of last year’s Wimbledon, when Roger Federer blew him off the court.

We’re all like this to some degree. Our comfort level in any situation tends to depend on past success, on experience, on internal capacity. If we know something inside out and have been through it, our comfort level increases and we can perform with the freedom that unlocks our best self. There are numerous studies and coaches reinforcing this, but to quote one, the English soccer and golf sports psychologist, Dan Abrahams: “A coach should always be emphasizing the notion of playing with freedom (and) should be doing this in training every time. If you’re a player you should be striving to play with freedom.” But when discomfort clogs our psyche, freedom evaporates. It’s why the world’s best golfers get the yips, why the robotic German soccer team missed three penalties in the Euro 2016 quarter final, why sports psychologists now populate every arena and playing field.

Sports psychologists have become so commonplace on the PGA Tour that Golf Digest recently ranked the Top 10 Golf Psychologists based on the feedback of 125 of the world’s best male, female, and senior players. Mental coaches such as Bob Rotella (“Stop giving meaning to missed shots”) and Gio Valiante (“Write down five happy golf memories. Then, before you play, clear your head of negativity. Focus on those memories, and you’ll be fearless, focused and free”) have become almost as important, and almost as famous, as the players and swing coaches. So much so that during an interview earlier this year with the Golf Channel, pundit Charlie Rymer told me, “You have to believe before you can achieve. Everyone gets scared or nervous, and all I know is if I’m trying to help a tour player in a rut, I’m going to have them call the psychologist first, not last. You have to think well at the elite level or you have no chance.” It’s not insignificant that tennis is similar to golf in many key psychological ways—it’s an individual sport and there is time for reflection between athletic actions (meaning, there is time for negativity to pry open cracks in the psyche).

For all his power, Raonic has been a passive and even inward player through his career, rarely saying anything, rarely expressing much. He is Canadian, after all (well, a Canadian born in Serbia who now lives in Monaco, but still). But despite his polite and soft demeanor, Raonic’s game is predicated on blunt force (in his semi-final win over Federer, his average serve was 15 mph faster than Federer’s and he had more groundstroke winners and volley winners). He may never win the French Open on the slow red clay, but the zippy grass of Wimbledon suits his blitzkrieg game perfectly. Both McEnroe and Raonic must have sensed that what he needed to pair with his aggressive game was an aggressive mind. And there have been few tennis players in history more aggressive (read, cocky, mouthy, emotional, angry, temperamental, volcanic, inspiring, maddening) than John McEnroe. Even the title of his aforementioned first memoir was inspired by his reaction to a line call at Wimbledon in 1981, when an umpire ruled a serve out, to which he screamed, “You cannot be serious!” McEnroe went on to beat Bjorn Borg in the final that year.

McEnroe’s contribution, therefore, was never really going to be about technique—what could he possibly tell Raonic, other than the strategic element of attacking the net more vigorously and at what moments such attacks would be most fruitful?

Raonic only needed to hear one thing: Just do what I tell you. Do one thing and one thing only, which is, leave nothing on the table. It would mean precisely nothing to Raonic to hear “Go for every shot” from a fan or from me or from his girlfriend. But to have someone like John McEnroe tell Raonic to leave nothing in the tank, to enjoy the moment, to finish the match emptied out like you left nothing in reserve, well, that has weight. When you commit fully, the outcome is almost beside the point, simply because you’ve done everything you could do. That’s what McEnroe was trying to instill into Raonic: be bold and accept the outcome. Only someone of McEnroe’s stature in the game could say that to someone already in the top ten and have it register as an insight.

And it worked, especially in the semi-final against Roger Federer. He was assertive but, more significantly, he was emotionally engaged on court in a way he’s never been before. So much so that he was able to hit shots under trying conditions that he would not have attempted two months ago. At the business end of the fourth set, when Federer, already up two sets to one, was serving to send the set to a tiebreak, Raonic let loose a series of punishing, high-risk ground strokes. It was a fulcrum point in the match, when missing might have meant losing. His aggression and free-swinging sent a message to Federer, that message being, I may lose to you but I’m not afraid of you anymore.

Federer, uncharacteristically, was the one who blanched, serving two double faults in a row to hand the set to Raonic, who then went on to win the final set and the match. It was clear that he’d passed a test he’d set for himself, that, through a leap in self-belief, he had stepped on to a whole new stage—the cast of possible Grand Slam winners.

But then came the final against the fan favourite, Andy Murray. Raonic went on to lose in straight sets, 6–4, 7–6, 7–6, a scoreline that looks closer than it actually was. Raonic was visibly tight, locked up, not as demonstrative as he had been against Federer. He was simply not as emotionally engaged, for whatever reason. Rarely do you get the chance to hear from a coach after nearly every point, but because McEnroe is also the long-time colour commentator for ESPN, he offered fascinating insights into what he thought Raonic was going through. “The pressure’s getting to him,” McEnroe noted near the end of the second set. “It seems to me like he’s gone back into his shell a bit.”

Meaning, Raonic had reverted to playing it safe with both his game and his emotions. It’s what coaches mean when they say an athlete is “tight.” They aren’t free to express their talent, because they fear the outcome instead of forgetting about the outcome. Then, at 15–30, two games all, in the third set, Raonic played a brilliant point, finishing it off with a drilled forehand. “Finally,” said McEnroe, “that’s the furious return we’ve been waiting two sets for.”

Unfortunately, Murray was playing too well and the pattern had become too entrenched. “He just doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself,” said McEnroe, towards the end of the match, “which is disappointing.” And later, “I think I may have forgotten to mention to him that he might never get back here so he should make sure he enjoys himself.”

Tellingly, virtually all of McEnroe’s commentary during the match revolved around Raonic’s mental and emotional performance. Here and there he mentioned a tactical point, but it was clear that his role—at least in his own mind—was to help Raonic get to the next level mentally, which makes sense, given that at the elite level the margins between victory and defeat are miniscule, and are rarely about actual talent. Usually it comes down to who is best at creating the internal psychological conditions which allow talent to flow. At the recent US Open golf tournament at Oakmont, Pennsylvania, Phil Mickelson, in his pre-tournament press conference, said that of course he wanted to win but that he couldn’t think about winning, and that his goal was simply to get himself into a state of freedom and separation from the result, which, he added, was the only way to play decent golf under pressure.

That’s the McEnroe effect, and against Federer it worked. Against Murray, it did not work. Why? A slightly bigger moment. Not enough coach/pupil time. An opponent in slightly better shape. A sense of anti-climax, having gotten past Federer and into his first Slam final. It could have been any or all of the above. But this should still not detract from the significant strides Raonic made over the past two weeks. He lost to Murray, but he looked like someone who could win.

After the final, McEnroe noted in his closing remarks that it had been “Thirty-nine years since I spent seven weeks in Europe, so I believed in this guy. I’m proud of him. It’s been exciting for me, I enjoyed it, even though it was like a real job, a nine-to-five job. I felt like I was a player again. I was loving it. I’m not sure what’s going to happen going forward, because I haven’t really talked to Milos or his management yet about it, but Milos really cares. He’s a good professional and a good person. He’s got a great team and I’m proud to be involved with him.”

Certainly, Raonic would benefit from having McEnroe stay on as part of his team, though that’ll depend on McEnroe as much as Raonic. But he supplied Raonic with an extremely valuable vantage point from which to view these experiences. The vantage point of belief freed from the implications of outcome, because one of the greatest and most inventive players to have ever played the game told him to go for it and not worry about the result.

I ate every single drop of that matzo ball soup during my meeting with McEnroe. I went back to Barney Greengrass the next day on my own, and had it again. But then I left town the day after that. I haven’t been back to New York City since. Despite good vibes all round, McEnroe ended up choosing a different writer to help with his memoir, a Manhattan writer who lived down the block from him. However, the book remains stalled to this day, the word in publishing being that McEnroe hasn’t yet found or made the time for the project. One thing we can assume with some certainty is that the book is not languishing because McEnroe has gone into a shell.

Curtis Gillespie is the editor of Eighteen Bridges.

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