SEEING as the monopoly of the top five male players has been broken just once in the past six years and the Australian Open has been their domain since 2005, it would take a brave man to bet on an outsider breaking through in the next fortnight.
However, Marin Cilic managed it at the US Open a couple of years ago and I believe Milos Raonic has improved his game sufficiently to break the stranglehold exerted by Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal in the tournaments that count. He’s got the firepower to worry all of these guys.
Raonic will be 26 later this year and first made his presence felt at the Australian Open in 2011. Last year he was a quarter-finalist, beaten by the eventual champion Djokovic, and back then I wouldn’t have argued too much about the widespread perception of him. Although he had a big serve and hit the ball very hard, he didn’t have too much else to his game and was always picking up one kind of injury or another.
That has changed. I spent time with him at the recent exhibition event in Abu Dhabi talking about what was needed to break through against the top guys. Then I watched a lot of his matches at the Brisbane International and saw him beat Federer to win the title a week ago. Federer wasn’t 100% fit because of a virus but he was well enough to get to the final and Raonic outplayed him.
I sensed a determination from Raonic to make himself better and you have to respect that in a top-flight sportsman. He could make a comfortable life bludgeoning his way to victory with a barrage of aces and he would have won his share of titles in the smaller events, simply because of the strength of his serve.
But that was not good enough for Milos. He wants to win Grand Slam titles, craves a place near the top of the game and is prepared to do what it takes. He’s even been watching some of my instructional videos because he wanted to work on his volleying.
I’m not taking any credit and I don’t even know if it’s a factor but the big change for me in the first few weeks of this year is an improvement in his game at the net. He’s big, 6ft 5in tall with long arms and a massive wing-span. With the strength of his serve, it would be criminal not to back it up with an attacking volley and I see a marked advancement in that department.
He is also moving a lot better, which is good to see after his problems last year. He missed the French Open after foot surgery that was intended to kill a nerve that was causing all kinds of problems. Then he missed the last couple of months of 2015 after a series of back spasms and was intent on putting that issue to rest.
The big Canadian is very intelligent — his father has a PhD in engineering and his mother is a nuclear physicist. Talking to him in Brisbane, he said he is fascinated by mathematics and understands the power he is capable of.
His game is not pretty and some might say he is the epitome of the downside of men’s tennis in that he wins by simply outhitting the guy across the net. Put him against a player of a similar ilk, such as Cilic, Kevin Anderson or Nick Kyrgios, and the result will be a surfeit of aces, hardly any rallies and not too much entertainment. That didn’t stop Pete Sampras being revered as one of the greatest players of all time.
Do I expect any great change in the order of merit at the top of the men’s game this year? The answer would have to be no and it is going to take a superhuman effort from somebody to prevent Djokovic from winning a sixth Australian Open title.
I see Murray going a very long way in the tournament once more and only an idiot would write off Federer after he reached the finals at Wimbledon, the US Open and the ATP World Tour Finals.
Wawrinka is also a contender after winning in 2014 but as for Nadal, we will have to wait and see. I can honestly say that I have never seen anybody play with as much intensity in an exhibition match as I saw from Nadal in Abu Dhabi.
So here we go for another Grand Slam year with the big shots of men’s tennis looking very solid at the top of the game. It will take some shots with real velocity to break that dominance and if anyone possesses sufficient power, then it’s Milos Raonic.