Sporting Life

Raonic stresses the need for inner calm

Unflustered approach succeeds as Canadian is immune to tension in five-set win against Wawrinka

Milos Raonic is more entertaining than even he sets out to be. He just hired a famous baseliner as coach even as he's finding success at the net. His game can look robotic and yet he produces drop volleys that have a hint of haiku about them. He has never beaten a great player in a Grand Slam and yet yesterday he defied a comeback by a former Australian Open champion against whom he had won only a single set in four previous encounters.

And, remarkably, he did all this with a mostly straight face.

Raonic, coached now by Carlos Moya, yesterday produced an attacking game of some liveliness to beat Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-3 yet offered the body language of a stoic accountant. Others can grin, shout and prance on court; he, if you don't mind, is "trying to be efficient".

Which he mostly was during a 3hr 44min fourth-round match that was never epic but was classically tense. At match's end the impressive Canadian's statistics included 82 winners, two wry grins and two fist pumps. His opponent was producing one every game.

On a dramatic evening it was not only Wawrinka's brilliant orange outfit which was loud but him as well. "Come onnnnnnnn," came the cry from the Swiss in the second set. It was a long, plaintive yell from a man whose movement was listless (he's been sick for 10 days), his forehand errant and his desperate need to find some energy evident in every shouted syllable.

We should thank Wawrinka for his repeated "come on's" and clenched fists because he was offering us a glimpse into the stress that stalks athletes. Most often the strain of competition is invisible to us because athletes, who are either very fine actors or train themselves to manage their emotions, refuse to betray the anxiety that infects them.

As former player Justin Gimelstob, who is now John Isner's coach, told The Straits Times: "There is so much stress out there. The smallest margins determine whether you achieve your greatest dreams."

Where else in life do young people vomit before they go to work and weep after it? A hockey legend, with multiple Olympic golds, told me that he once bought himself a pipe. Not to smoke but to clench between his teeth so no one could see how they were nervously chattering.

Raonic would understand because he, unique to tennis players, wears a mouthguard. One might facetiously say it is because his game is violent - his opening point was a 223kmh ace - but in truth it's because a highly intense 25-year-old grinds his teeth. Yet from his almost choirboyish, unmoving face you could never tell what was going on within.

Yesterday he promised he was in control and when asked if he was boiling inside, replied: "Not as much as normal because I felt very clear in what I needed to do and I believed that I could do it. I think that gave me some kind of calm."

Afflicted by injury last year, this year he, a serious man in serious pursuit of his best self, is unbeaten over eight matches and for the first two sets yesterday his tennis was like his carefully arranged hair - almost nothing out of place.

While recovering from injury Raonic had asked himself, "What can I do to get better?" and the answer was simple - move forward. Yesterday, using a serve (24 aces), a forehand (13 winners) and net play (54 of 83 net points won), he bullied Wawrinka and perfectly played the role of the great dictator.

Whereupon the Swiss dipped into his champion reserves, slapped a backhand crosscourt, whipped a forehand down the line, and abruptly broke Raonic to steal the third set. When Wawrinka took the fourth set as well, using an exquisitely weighted backhand chip that glided over the net and collapsed at Raonic's feet, he had all the momentum.

This was exquisite stress for both men - to feet, back, lungs and mind. This was also a nice, small fairy-tale ending ready for Wawrinka. But it says something of Raonic's character that a large man whose slight curvature of the spine gives him a small hunch did not bend figuratively. He broke Wawrinka and how much this meant to him was clear: He snarled, he pumped his fist. The crowd was moved and so was he.

To take the Swiss' scalp, even if it was slightly feverish, can be considered a serious examination passed and Raonic acknowledged that as he said: "To beat one of (the great players) for the first time at a Slam, it has a very concrete sort of message to the work I'm putting in."

Later, his hair freshly combed and his manner even, the polite Canadian spoke of his next opponent, Gael Monfils, whose emotions are worn on his sleeve, and his collar and, well, everywhere else. "He's very entertaining," said Raonic and left the rest unsaid. The Frenchman can win the laughs. The Canadian just wants the match.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'Raonic stresses the need for inner calm'. Print Edition | Subscribe