Milos Raonic's rocket serve, more Australian Open tune-up notes
Milos Raonic made a name for himself after a Chennai Open victory on Sunday
Mardy Fish evidently harbors some sour feelings for Bulgarian Grigor Dmitrov
Plus: Andy Murray's newest coach, Roger Federer on injuries, and more notes
Here is an assortment of observations leading into the final tune-up week for the Australian Open:
Raonic's rise: As the Chennai final unfolded on Sunday, I found myself in a time-travel mode, wishing Andre Agassi had been on the receiving end of Milos Raonic's serve. That would be Agassi around the turn of the century, at the peak of his powers, when he was widely recognized as the finest returner ever witnessed.
Janko Tipsarevic had some terrific moments during his tense, three-tiebreaker loss to Raonic. Some of his defensive play was world-class, and he managed a couple of desperate, lunging service returns that bordered on the impossible. But here's the bottom line about the 21-year-old Raonic and that tournament in India: He stepped up to the line for 48 service games and was never broken. That hadn't happened on Tour since Roger Federer at the 2008 Halle (Wimbledon warmup) event, and Raonic unleashed 35 aces in the final.
At an imposing 6-foot-6, with an appropriate nickname ("Avatar"), Raonic mixes a full measure of loose-limbed athleticism into his serves. When Justin Gimelstob introduced Raonic to his idol, Pete Sampras, at the San Jose tournament last year, he told Sampras, "This kid has a live arm almost as loose as yours."
Raonic went on to win that event -- his breakthrough performance -- and within weeks of his first ATP Tour title, he had knocked off Fernando Verdasco (twice), James Blake, Gael Monfils and Mardy Fish. Standing in there against that ferocious serve proved to be unnerving, to say the least. An embittered Verdasco declared, "It's not even tennis," but the classier Tipsarevic spoke for Raonic's future after Sunday's match, saying, "Guys like Milos are special players."
To me, Raonic's most appealing quality is his thirst for winners. He plays big on every shot, particularly a forehand that now looks equally devastating with a cross-court or down-the-line delivery. He's still not a finished product at the net, but with a bit more seasoning, he could help restore a serve-and-volley element that has been such a rarity in recent years.
The young man has a temper, no question about that. He's working on it, but on a few occasions Sunday, he very conspicuously yelled in the direction of his box, complete with gestures of frustration. "Sometimes I'm not the best at accepting mistakes," he said last year. "I'm trying not to get angry. I'm trying to see everything clearer, play the big points better, instead of getting caught up in the previous points."
When it was announced last summer that Canada had earned a Davis Cup World Group tie against France, in Vancouver, Team Canada unveiled a Raonic poster with the tagline, "Hey France, I've got a 151-mph serve. Try returning that with a baguette."
I'm not sure even Agassi could muster much action with a loaf of bread, but I'd sure like to watch him in vintage form against the hottest young player in tennis.
Bad Fish: Anyone for a Mardy Fish-Grigor Dimitrov matchup at the Australian Open? There's something about the Bulgarian player -- tagged as "the next Federer" when he first arrived on Tour -- that really ticks off Fish. The veteran American player is generally a model of class and deportment on court, but he had some choice words for Dimitrov during the Hopman Cup over the weekend, and at one point the two had to be separated before the dispute got out of hand.
Fish had no comment about the incident, but he apparently was upset that Dimitrov was playing with excessive zeal in a singles match rendered meaningless by the Czech Republic's clinching of Group A earlier in the day. According to The New York Times dispatch, Fish received a code violation during the match "for spitting in the direction of a block of flag-waving Bulgarian fans who were sitting several rows above the court."
Later in the day, in mixed doubles, Fish and Dimitrov routinely crushed wicked bullets at each other, and during one changeover, Fish actually walked over to Dimitrov's side of the court to continue an argument. That's when a tournament official stepped between them. "It's evident I've offended him with something," Dimitrov told reporters, "but I have no idea with what."
It's highly unusual to see Fish involved in any such theatrics. Dimitrov, though, was once suspended for shoving an umpire (at a Challenger event in Helsinki), and he has described himself as "not an easy person" to deal with. He's about to draw considerably more attention, wherever he goes.
Murray's new coach: When I first heard that Andy Murray had taken on Ivan Lendl as a coach, I tried to imagine conversations between the laconic, somewhat rebellious Murray and Lendl, two men worlds apart in temperament and upbringing. Whatever advice was coming forth, how long would the Czech's voice ring true to the Scotsman?
The early returns are encouraging. Murray says he hasn't made any major changes to his game -- not after an association that began just two weeks ago -- but he graciously thanked Lendl after winning the Brisbane tournament with a victory over a sore-legged Alexandr Dolgopolov.
"The advice I'll be getting will be more in terms of competing in big events, and the pressure it brings," Murray said afterward. "He knows the feeling, the nerves in the buildup to it. A lot of stuff we've spoken about is working hard and focusing on the process, and not worrying about results, or things that happened in the past. It's about working harder than the guys who are around you in the rankings, watching them, studying them, understanding their games."
Interestingly, Murray said, "Ivan has a similar sense of humor to me in many respects. He's got a lot of great stories from when he played. All the ex-players I've spoken to this week, guys like Todd Woodbridge and John Fitzgerald, talked about the stuff he used to get up to in the locker room, playing practical jokes and things he said to certain people. He's a funny guy -- and an interesting character. But he's also very hard-working, and he's going to give me a great opportunity to play my best tennis this year."
Everyone took note of the obvious parallels, each man struggling to win majors (Lendl didn't win one until his 19th try) and fighting off accusations of wilting under pressure. Lendl became a legendary competitor on the strength of his forehand, and that is probably Murray's most glaring weakness. Beyond the attitude adjustments and on-court composure, that issue cuts to the heart of this relationship.
Federer's health: Some felt Roger Federer sounded a bit condescending (it wouldn't be the first time) as he spoke of injuries last month, saying, "I never worry that I won't hold up for an entire season, because I do, I think, plan decently and well. It's part of a good player, being able to put that aside and still play good tennis. I promise you I had a lot of pain throughout my career, and I've managed to play with it."
Not long thereafter, Federer withdrew from the Qatar Open with a back injury. A mere trifle, perhaps, but an ominous sign for anyone -- in or out of sports.
Serena drama: Two quick words on Serena Williams (and don't miss Courtney Nguyen's incisive take on Serena's bizarre comments of late):
Serena, you must be joking when you say, "I never understood how I became an athlete." Just guessing here, but you came from a brutally rough neighborhood, you were naturally gifted, tennis was in the family, and it was fun, OK? Your dad kept you away from the junior-circuit madness, and you suddenly had a clear-cut way out of Compton and into high-profile celebrity.
Also, it was a shame to hear Serena backtrack on her public apology (relayed by USA Today's Doug Robson a few months back) over that bitter tirade against chair umpire Eva Asderaki at last year's U.S. Open. "I honestly think I was really toned down," she said in Brisbane. "Like I didn't use any bad language or anything. So I wouldn't change it so much. I'm an extremely emotional person, and oh, my goodness! But yeah, that was what it was. It was great."
Somehow, in reviewing that incident, "great" isn't the first word that comes to mind.
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