Strangers hollered from the stands, “We LOVE you Milos!!” Last winter, I watched Canada’s greatest tennis player, Milos Raonic, serve up aces at a Davis Cup match in Vancouver. A thing of beauty. Raonic—all six feet five inches of him—wallops balls up to 250 kilometres per hour, which gives him the third fastest serve in the history of the game. It’s that serve, above all, that’s made him the highest-ranking tennis player in Canadian history (as of this writing he has the No.13 slot, worldwide). He pads across courts—in size 14 sneakers—with a certain grace that you hardly ever see in one so young. Raonic is still just 22 years old.
And maybe it’s that serve, or rather his awareness of those phenomenal limbs that make it possible, which inspired Raonic’s new foundation for disadvantaged children. The rising star is raising funds so limbless kids can receive prosthetics and take part in the world of sport. Great talent has already brought on great responsibility.
Just before the Davis Cup, Raonic and I tooled across town in the back of a chauffeured vehicle (he on his way to yet another photo-shoot) and I was struck by the man’s youth. There was barely a beard to shave, and even the occasional crack in his voice. In photos of Raonic, he is forever vacillating between an impish exuberance (if he’s hugging a hockey player, or about to board a jet) and a near-scowl of determination (if he’s ever looking at the camera head-on). But there in his brown eyes you do see one thing quite consistently—the unimpeachable drive usually only found in, say, a 12-year-old violin prodigy making her Carnegie Hall debut. Back then, of course, he was only the 25th best player in the world.
Not so long before Raonic was in a position to be helping children, he was a child himself, and desperately focusing on his game of choice. The son of immigrants from Montenegro, Raonic moved to Canada at age three (snug little Thornhill, Ontario, to be precise). And by his eighth birthday, he had taken to doing battle with a ball machine before and after school for hours at a time.
The work, clearly, has paid off. After bringing in well over $1 million in prize money already, and substantially raising the profile of tennis in Canada (a country which, until Raonic, considered the game somehow outside its purview), the 22-year old is in a position to effect real change beyond the score of a match. Launched at the Toronto Lawn Tennis club with a Raonic Race for Kids on November 15, 2012, his Foundation was immediately able to gather the company of greats like Daniel Nestor and Serena Williams to raise more funds for children. Raonic himself donated hours of hitting sessions with teams that raised the most funds.
Like Raonic’s own ever-evolving career, the Foundation is only in its formative years. Currently, the good work focuses on children with physical disabilities, but its purview actually stretches to include all disadvantaged children, whether their hardships be economic, social, or physical. Yet it makes perfect sense he’s focused on the needs of youths. In our short time together, Raonic turned to me at one point and waved his hands at the strange pageantry around him. “You know, I’m still just a kid. In a lot of ways.”
He still likes Tweeting several times a day to his 75,000 (and counting) followers on Twitter; he’ll post goofy photos of him with other stars from the sporting world (who he’s always more flustered by than the movie stars he comes across), or he’ll forward inspirational quotes—from Michael Jordan: “You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them.”
Certainly Raonic’s own expectations are paying off in spades… and aces. His foundation’s first fundraising effort, the BMO Raonic Race For Kids event, raised more than $163,000—148% of their goal. Next challenge in his sights: Montréal for the Rogers Cup in August.
Rogers Cup , Toronto & Montréal
Starting in 1881, what was then called the Canadian Open is the third oldest tennis tournament in the world. It was first played by only men on the courts of the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club—the women’s matches began a decade later. The greats have all had their day at the Open—Andre Agassi was unstoppable in the mid-90s; Roger Federer vanquished all in 2004 and 2006; Serena Williams knocked her way to a win in 2011. Martina Navratilova, Ivan Lendl, Steffi Graf, Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, Andy Roddick and noisy Monica Seles have all had their Oh Canada day. Dubbed the Rogers Cup since 2005, the championship hasn’t had a Canadian (male or female) winner in recent history. Hopes are high, though, that Milos Raonic—Canada’s greatest player yet—may break that dry streak.
Toronto Rogers Cup (Womens): August 2-11. Rexall Centre at York University, Toronto.
Montréal Rogers Cup (Mens): August 2-11. Uniprix Stadium, Montréal.
By Michael Harris