My column on AOL Fanhouse
The U.S. Tennis Association and Patrick McEnroe, its head of player development, are finalizing details on a new $50 million push to teach tennis The Canada Way.
OK, maybe not. I just made that up.
But the new buzz in tennis is 20-year old Milos Raonic (right), who hadn’t done much in the minor leagues, wasn’t a great junior and, most amazing of all, is from Canada.
So now, the U.S., with tons of money, cannot even develop players as well as Canada? What next? Iceland?
Well, Andy Roddick, the face of U.S. men’s tennis, saved U.S. tennis’ face Sunday, diving for a forehand passing shot, probably the best shot of his life, to beat Raonic in the finals in Memphis, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5. It was a fairly big moment for Roddick, holding off the leader of the next generation.
But Raonic has stolen tennis since the Australian Open. It’s always thrilling to see the sudden emergence of the Next Big Thing. You think of it as a process, a development, a step-by-step to the mountaintop. Raonic just appeared with a 150 mph serve and the face and body of a 14-year-old. Well, a 6-foot-5 14-year old.
How was everyone beating him way back in, say, August?
It makes you wonder: is there any way to teach greatness, or does it just find its way all by itself?
The USTA is trying everything. Nick Bollettieri spurred on the last great American tennis charge — the era of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang and others — by putting the best kids together on the same courts, fighting it out with each other every day. A generation elevated itself.
What about the Spanish Way? Spain has developed a ton of top players, including Rafael Nadal, and it brings kids together and teaches the game on the slow, red clay, where you learn to build a point and think things through.
The USTA is building clay courts, keeping low-level pro tournaments, such as the one in Peoria, Ill., alive because they are on clay. Of course, in the U.S., they use green clay, which is nothing like the red stuff. When the U.S. brought in Argentine junior Andrea Collarini, a clay court expert, to play for America, he fell on the green stuff and hurt his arm. He also told me he used to walk onto the court with his arms held out, like a shaky new ice skater.
Anyway, the USTA, with so much money coming in because it has one of tennis’ majors, the U.S. Open, is either covering all bases or creating a hodgepodge. We’ll know in a couple of years.
But Canada? Raonic said Tennis Canada started helping him just three years ago.
In July, he was ranked No. 278. In January, he wasn’t in the top 150. Then, he got to the second week of the Australian Open, beating Mikhail Youzhny, who was ranked No. 10.
In the past couple of weeks, he won the tournament in San Jose, got two wins over No. 9Fernando Verdasco, and beat No. 16 Mardy Fish. It took the greatest shot of his career for Roddick to beat him. Raonic is now ranked No. 37, the best player from Canada ever.
Truth is, you don’t find top players coming from any of the countries with majors, England, France, Australia and the U.S.
What is the Canada Way, anyway? Canada is trying to copy the French Way, for whatever reason.
I think maybe champions come from inside a person, and we don’t know what makes them take that last step. Maybe the goal is just to put them in position to take it, and then hope.
Raonic isn’t just a serve. He has a big forehand, tolerable backhand, decent footwork. But at one point, Roddick was resorting to full out guesswork on returning his serve, moving one way or the other before Raonic even hit the ball. No point in standing there, letting an ace blow past.
“For me, that’s not a real match in tennis,” Verdasco said, showing the usual sour grapes of top players in denial about the next generation. “I hope to play soon against him on clay courts, to show him what it is to play tennis, and play rallies, and run, and not (just) serve.”
Hmm, sounds like he thinks Raonic is winning by doing what Americans used to believe in: bashing everything without touch or much thought.
Well, Roddick’s career hangs on a little longer, as he was crushing forehands again. It was the best he’d been in a while. The next U.S. generation of Sam Querrey and John Isner has stalled, while yet another generation in tennis has moved in. Canada has Raonic. Australia has Bernard Tomic, who’s 19. Ukraine has Alexandr Dogopolov, 22. The tennis world is excited about them.
Meanwhile, the U.S. hopes for 18-year old Ryan Harrison, ranked 150, and a younger group the USTA has its hands on.
If it doesn’t happen, then the U.S. can always do what England does, pull for the guy next door. Andy Murray is the hope of Great Britain.
Soon, the U.S. might resort to cheering for Raonic as a local:
Go, North America!