Court 16 at Wimbledon sits in the shadow of The Championships’ famous center court and is usually reserved for the match’s down lights. It’s not a place where you would expect to find a former Wimbledon runner-up and former world number three in front of a few hundred onlookers and curious passers-by interested in stopping and watching.
But Milos Raonic was there on Wednesday outside court 16 in his opening round match against world number 159-ranked Austrian Denis Novak. It was the beginning of an unexpected comeback for the Canadian – whose ranking had fallen to 849 – after a two-year absence from Wimbledon, which saw some of his greatest victories.
The last time Mr. Raonic set foot on the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, he spent most of his time on the show courts at tournaments, putting the fear of God into his opponents with a powerful stroke that once exceeded 236 kilometres. . per hour, always among the top players. The fastest tournament. He reached the semi-finals in 2014, the final in 2016, and the quarter-finals twice since.
He suffered an Achilles tendon injury, shut it down for 2021 and walked away from the sport, vowing never to return. He cut himself off from the game and refused to watch matches on TV or talk about tennis with his family, friends or agent.
Life has taken another direction. He married his longtime partner, Camille Rengoire, in April 2022 and they’ve hitchhiked between the Bahamas, New York, and the California coast. As far away as possible from the stress and grind of a professional athlete.
“I stayed away from Toronto, I think for a little while, because the question was always; What are you doing now? How’s it going? I didn’t even want to ask those questions,” he said on Wednesday. “I knew life after tennis was going to be good. »
Living in the Bahamas last year, he serendipitously felt the need to make up his mind. He passed a tennis court every day on the way to the gym. Eventually he stopped and thought about hitting a ball or two, but even the warm-up was painful.
Then the desire began. Tennis” would sometimes be on TV when I was at the gym. It was always kind of working and I wanted to try again.
Refusal to rush. Being married and grounded helped him put his decision to start dating into perspective. “When I wanted to play again, it wasn’t out of desperation or anxiety. It was rather. Would this be something I would enjoy and appreciate?”, he did not state. “I kind of decided I wanted to get ready to come back when the time came. Not because I felt, hey, I had to go to Wimbledon, or I had to go to the US Open.”
He started training in earnest earlier this year and has had a series of setbacks. A way back seemed a long way off until he competed in the warm-up event at Wimbledon in the Netherlands in June. He beat Miomir Kecmanović, Top 50, relatively easily: 6-3, 6-4. However, he had to withdraw from his next match due to a sore shoulder.
This cast doubt on his return to Wimbledon. Can he handle multiple rounds of five-a-side matches?
The first challenge he faced in London was the weather. Rain delayed his first round match against Mr. Novak by a full day. They had to wait another 90 minutes before play began on Wednesday and then had to deal with two rain delays in the first set. Flashbacks of 2011 flashed through his head. When he slipped and ended up needing hip surgery.
Mr. Raonic was one of those people who didn’t know what to do during breaks in play, and said, “The last time I dealt with a rain delay was a very, very long time ago.” “So all these kinds of things that feel out of the ordinary. You always kind of wonder. What was I doing when these things happened before?”
He spent some time playing animal game with fellow Canadian Denis Shapovalov, whose game was also suspended. “I learned that a turtle can breathe through its butt,” Raonic said.
By the time the play resumes in earnest, Mr. Raonic has regained some of his old charm.
He fired his signature punch at Mr. Novak, 29, and collected 28 aces including one to finish the game. After losing the first set in a tie-break, Mr. Raonic went through the next three sets and gained momentum with Mr. Novak fainting. The final score was 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-1.
There were slips, missed opportunities and plenty of fouls, including an unforced 37. But in his second match in two years, Mr. Raonic left the court happy. “I think I’ve done a lot of things well,” he said.
The only thing he regrets is not seizing the moment. “I think you get caught up in the whole process of competing and trying to find a way to win and it goes by really fast,” he said. “You know, it’s five, including serve, and you can’t really enjoy the game, you’re just competing.”
Mr. Raonic is only 32 years old – four years younger than Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic – but it looks like he’s been at the forefront of Canadian tennis for eons. His breakthrough year came just over a decade ago in 2011, when he was named ATP Tour Newcomer of the Year. He was the first Canadian to break into the top 10, won eight ATP titles and qualified for two Grand Slam quarterfinals, semifinals and finals.
He doesn’t think much of it after his game on Thursday. For now, his summer plans include the National Bank Open in Toronto and the US Open, and not much more. “I only played one game,” he said on Wednesday. “There is no reason to look much further than that.”
Shawn Brown and his twin brother Cole sat on the court Wednesday cheering every point the Raonic scored. They had followed Mr. Ranwick’s career for years and came over from Toronto when they heard he would be at Wimbledon.
“It was amazing,” said Sean, the 24-year-old attorney. “He looked like the old Milos I’m used to. It’s a good point of view.”