- Kamakshi Tandon
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TORONTO -- The past two years have brought plenty of new, dizzying experiences for Milos Raonic, and this week is set to be another. So far in his young career, he has won titles, played Grand Slam night matches and faced legends. But never, until now, has he been the center of attention at a tournament like this.
With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal missing, the Rogers Cup in Toronto is banking on the presence of Raonic, an area native from Thornhill, Ontario. He's the subject of posters and commercials, and even the tournament's second stadium court has been named the "Milos Raonic Grandstand." Such honors are usually reserved for retired stars, not young players on the rise.
"It's done through a sponsor, it's not because of me," Raonic told the ATP with an embarrassed smile, admitting that "I've been getting a little bit of heckling from the players in the locker room."
The court is supposed to sport the name of various Canadian players each year and has been named after Daniel Nestor in the past. Now it's Raonic's turn, just another sign of his ubiquitous presence on the grounds this week.
It's all very different from the last time he was at this tournament, which alternates between Toronto and Montreal each year. Two years ago, Raonic was ranked No. 217 and known only vaguely as a prospect. Now he's No. 24 and the guy in Canadian tennis, as much or more of an attraction at this event as the top two seeds, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.
Since Raonic missed last year's edition in Montreal because of hip surgery, his opening match Tuesday will be his first time playing as the home favorite. How does he plan to handle it? By trying to act like it's anywhere else, even though the partisan support will make that difficult.
"For sure, it's going to be something pretty amazing and something special," he told reporters. "And I think it can help me through a lot of moments throughout the match. But at the end of the day, I've got to try to do what I've been doing so far this year.
"Through most of the match, you try to tune everything out and focus on what you need to do."
To keep that on-the-road feel, Raonic is staying at a hotel this week instead of at home. He likes having family and friends around but isn't concerned about the size of his cheering section.
"I think [it] will be enjoyable, but honestly, as soon as I step out on court, it couldn't really matter less. The only person I really look up to throughout a match is my coach," he said. "I try to stay below the sponsor boards."
But ignore it or not, the attention is there, and with it comes expectation. The 21-year-old has been pegged as the next big thing ever since he made the second week of the Australian Open as a qualifier in 2011, and he started this year by winning a title in Chennai and defending his title in San Jose. What is still missing is a deep run into a major or a victory over one of the really big names (though he did defeat a subpar Murray in Barcelona on clay this spring). It's starting to feel overdue.
Raonic has come close, taking Federer to three sets three times this year and falling 25-23 in the third set against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga at the Olympics last week. But close isn't enough, not when you're the next big thing, and Raonic knows it.
"I've played especially two matches -- the one against Jo, the one against Federer in Madrid. I had felt I had a lot of break chances that I maybe didn't deal with in the best way," he said. "I feel like I can play the level, I can play and compete with them. I feel they're still a step ahead. I think if we play 10 times they will beat me a numerous amount of times. But the thing about sport is you don't know what's going to happen on that given day. I feel like I just need to keep picking up experience."
Raonic possesses one of the biggest serves in the game, but those close third sets have highlighted his difficulties in breaking serve. He knows that too.
"I think right now a lot of it's coming down to the return game," he said. "A little bit more effective with my return game -- not just the return but also on but also the baseline play, sort of try to be more efficient with my return to try to get in an aggressive position a little bit quicker."
By his own account, the Canadian No. 1 is playing well in practice and feeling comfortable in familiar surroundings. His first match is against Viktor Troicki, and then there is a possible third round against Andy Murray, whose participation and fitness is uncertain as he arrives drained after his Olympic gold-winning performance last week.
If Raonic gets through, make that another new experience for him -- his first time in the quarterfinals of a Masters Series. He could hardly pick a better place for it.
Toronto is hoping that Milos Raonic can channel his inner Andy Murray and win in front of his hometown fans. Can he?