If 2011 was first and foremost marked by the tremendous year of Novak Djokovic, it was also marked by the rise of several young players who, by their performances, gave us a glimpse of what the next few years may bring us. There were some who impressed at one time or another throughout the year but, I think, none like the two players that will be featured here tonight: Milos Raonic and Bernard Tomic.
Milos Raonic: finally a Canadian explosion!
Like many, I discovered Milos Raonic two years ago, at the Rogers Cup, in Montreal, when he nearly defeated Chilean Fernando González. Since then, I followed his progression closely. Last year, in Tokyo, he made a fine impression on Rafael Nadal, who defeated him in the second round of the tournament, en route to the title. His play, but most of all his incredible serve, led us to foresee that this year might be a really good year for the young Canadian.
However, little did we know that it would be to that extent.
After failing to qualify for the Chennai tournament, Raonic, then ranked 152, made his way through the qualifications of the Australian Open. However, he was drawn in a pretty difficult quarter, which left little expectations as to where his road would lead him. If his first round opponent, Germany’s Bjorn Phau, was a beatable one, he would then have to face very difficult players.
There started the surprise. After defeating Phau in straight sets, his second round opponent was French veteran Michaël Llodra, whom he had met and defeated in the Montreal qualifications two years ago. This time was no different, as Raonic would again have the better of him (and two more times later this season), thus logging his biggest career win so far.
And it really was so far, for Raonic, in the third round, surprised the whole of the tennis world when he defeated his first top 10 opponent, then World no 10 Mikhail Youzhny, in four sets, before falling to David Ferrer in the round of 16, but not without taking a set from the Spaniard.
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This incredible Australian Open was only the beginning of the Raonic mania that would shake the tennis world throughout the year. With a game reminiscent of his idol, Pete Sampras, Raonic won himself many a fan among tennis supporters as well as experts, among which Brad Gilbert, who really wasted no words in (rightfully so) complimenting the powerful serve of the now nicknamed Missile Milos.
Just inside the top 100 after his incredible Australian Open, Raonic fell in the round of 16 in Johannesburg, before making his way to San Jose, where he became the first Canadian since Greg Rusedski some 16 years ago to win an ATP singles title. On his way to the title, he defeated Xavier Malisse, James Blake, and young Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis, before benefiting from a walkover from Frenchman Gaël Monfils (a wrist injury that kept him away for many weeks). In the finals, he defeated his second top 10 player, Fernando Verdasco (then ranked 9th).
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Just a few days later, Raonic defeated Verdasco again, as the draw in Memphis made them face each other in the first round of the tournament, which crossed Verdasco quite a bit. Raonic made his way to his second consecutive final, where he disputed a high level match to Andy Roddick, who ended up taking the title with what I think is the best point of the season:
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Raonic continued in this fashion all the way to the clay season, where he started with good results until Madrid and Rome, where he lost in consecutive first rounds to Spaniards Feliciano López (Madrid) and Fernando Verdasco (Rome), who then levelled matters to 2 all in their encounters this season (he had defeated Raonic by retirement in the semis of the Estoril tournament several weeks before). He also lost in the first round of Roland-Garros, to German Michael Berrer.
A bad fall in his second round match at Wimbledon halted the dream season of Raonic, who injured his hip and had to undergo surgery, which kept him sidelined until the Davis Cup playoffs, thus making him miss the whole North American hard courts swing. Raonic ended his year by losing in the second round of both Tokyo (to Rafael Nadal, just like in 2010) and Shanghai (to David Ferrer, for the third time this season), reaching the semis in Stockholm (l. Gaël Monfils). He ended his season losing in the first round of both Valencia and Paris, thus ending the year knocking back on the top 30 doors (31), where he had spent a lot of this season.
Hard work pays off and Milos’s talent was complemented nicely by the work he put with his coach, Spaniard Galo Blanco, with whom he spent a lot of time training in Spain over the last year. Voted ATP’s Newcomer of the Year by his peers, he will be, without a doubt, one of the players to watch in 2012 and a serious contender to Grand Slam glory in the years to come.
Bernard Tomic: the “brat” finally matures
Only last year, and even at the beginning of this one, we heard more about the attitude of young Aussie Bernard Tomic than of his incredible talent on a tennis court. With a game that reminds a lot of Andy Murray’s, Tomic should definitely have been more spoken of for his game, but it was not to be.
This year, however, was a breakthrough for Tomic, who was finally talked about for the good reasons, although it hadn’t started all too well in this regard, especially when he withdrew from the national wild card playoffs, citing sickness, and had been seen the day after practising for a long while under the scorching Australian sun. He nonetheless received what a lot considered as an undeserved wild card to the Open, where he reached the third round and lost to Rafael Nadal.
However, it is really on grass that Tomic found the most success, reaching the semis and the finals of both Challenger tournaments in Nottingham, before qualifying to Wimbledon, where, like Milos Raonic did in Melbourne, he surprised everyone. Tomic did so by reaching the quarter-finals, defeating players like Nikolay Davydenko and Robin Söderling before falling to Novak Djokovic, but not without taking a set of the soon-to-be World no 1.
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Nevertheless, except for his grass season and his good performance in the Asian Swing, it was a hot and cold season for the young Australian, who could play unbelievable tennis when facing the best, only to fall lamentably to players he should easily defeat, such as his inexplicable loss to Michael Lammer in the first round of the Basel qualifications, for example.
This kind of performance still leaves me with a lot of questions regarding his motivation when facing such players, and hopefully, next year, we will not see too much of such matches from him. If he continues to mature and develop, he should very likely crack the top 20 in 2012, as he finished the year just inside the top 50 (49), after starting it outside the top 200.
Coming up tomorrow
2011 – The year of the resurgence