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This story appears in the June 27, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
If an ace is the trump card of tennis, then 20-year-old Milos Raonic is playing with a loaded deck. Only six months into the season, the Canadian with the 140 mph serve leads the ATP with 445 aces. (His closest competition, Ivo Karlovic, has 379.) So it's little wonder that Raonic has won 78 percent of points on his first serve -- a rate not even Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic can claim -- and saved 66 percent of break points against him.
|The grass at Wimbledon should suit Raonic's game.|
Last year at this time, Raonic was perched at No. 295 in the world. Now, heading into Wimbledon, he's sitting pretty at No. 28, the highest ranking ever for a Canadian man. Credit a focus that's as sharp as his serves. Coming into this season, he says, "my goal was to be in the top 50 by the end of the year." That pursuit started immediately in January, at the Australian Open, where the 6'5", 198-pound Raonic, ranked No. 152 entering the event as a qualifier, made a surprise visit to the round of 16, losing in four sets to Top 10 player David Ferrer. "It was an eye-opening moment to be in the fourth round of a Grand Slam," Raonic says. "That's when I started believing."
Three weeks later, in San Jose, he rolled through the field, then defeated top seed Fernando Verdasco (No. 9 at the time) for his first ATP title. It was almost the same story in Memphis the next week: Raonic lost a close, tiebreak-filled final to top seed Andy Roddick. "He uses that serve to keep him in matches, even if he's not playing his best," says Roddick, who often overwhelms his opponents with aces. "He's pretty much guaranteed 85 percent of his holds, and that's huge. It lets you learn on the job."
Raonic developed his lethal serve while growing up in Ontario. His parents settled there in 1994 after fleeing the war-torn former Yugoslavia. "There weren't a lot of kids to train with," Milos says. "When I was alone, I spent my time serving." These days, he's concentrating on rounding out his game. "I move okay for a big guy, but I'm not fast like Federer or Nadal," he says. "Better footwork would help. So would a less predictable forehand."
Those faults became evident this spring on the clay courts; the slower, stickier surface made Raonic's cannon serve far less effective. He lost in the first round of his three most recent clay court tournaments, including a disappointing debut at the French Open. But his luck should turn at Wimbledon, where the grass is better suited to his game.
Even if players know he has an ace in the hole, they still have to go all in.
Lindsay Berra is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.