Photo Credit: Julian Finney/Getty
When 2016 eventually comes to an end, Milos Raonic will probably sit back and say 'good, but not good enough'. Although there are still more than two months to go in the 2016 tennis season, Raonic's year has again been plagued by injury, misfortune and disappointment. This is not to say that 2016 has not seen progress or celebratory times. His brilliant run to the Australian Open semi finals and the Wimbledon final were proof that he continues to make significant progress in terms of style and substance. Mystifyingly, it is the mental side of the game where he has shown the most weakness.
When Raonic showed up at the beginning of the year wearing a mouth guard, I thought maybe it was because he was having dental problems. This should have been a major light bulb flash. As I know from personal experience, teeth grinding is a sign of stress and can manifest itself in any number of ways not connected to the jaw: body aches, back problems, headaches and mental stress. This was a sign that Raonic was under severe mental stress - probably not from anyone more so than himself. That this would manifest itself even further and to extremes at the U.S. Open in September would prove that the mental side of the game is something that Raonic still needs to work on.
Raonic puts a lot of pressure on himself. Perhaps it comes from the realization that he is not built like a traditional tennis player and has had to mold his body into something that will be effective on the court. Maybe it comes from the fact that he has to work hard - harder than most top players to achieve what he wants to do in tennis. Still, maybe it is internal pressure that he puts on himself or comes from outside sources that want or need him to do well. Some pressure is good. A lot of pressure is bad and, as we have seen at the U.S. Open, it can have a devastating effect on the body.
Raonic's game at the 2016 Australian Open looked devastating. It looked like a brand new Raonic. Until he injured himself while leading Andy Murray in the semi final, it looked as if Raonic could win the whole thing. Although the injury was physical in nature, perhaps the mental stress of the situation was the instigator. From that point on, through the winter and spring, although he made significant progress in consistently making his ranking or getting to the quarter finals, semi finals or final of tournaments, there was always this underlying push to his game - of trying hard, maybe too hard to put himself over the finish line. This was no more evident than at the French Open where he drew himself into inexplicably long matches and ended up losing to Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the 4th round.
His success at Queens Club and Wimbledon showed that he was back on track in both his physical game and mental game. His work with John McEnroe, initially, worked. But I do think that as the summer wore on, Raonic settled back into the depths of his mind, where doubt, pressure and the element of 'winning at all cost' paid a price. The pressure of performing at home in Toronto, skipping the Olympics and everyone expecting him to come out of the blocks fresh and dominant because of that decision was his ultimate undoing.
I was more shocked at Raonic admitting that it was the pressure that felled him at the U.S. Open, rather than the fact that he lost to Ryan Harrison in the 2nd round. I don't think I've ever seen or heard of a tennis player admit that it was the mental side of the game that was the root cause of their physical downfall. That he would admit that is telling and it shows how much the mental side of the game has wreaked havoc on his game. He has to get it together. I would not be surprised to hear that he has engaged the help of a sport psychologist to help him exorcise the demons from his head.
I've heard various tennis analysts say that the game is mostly mental. The proportions vary, but from what I have witnessed over the past few decades of watching and following tennis, I have to say the game is 90% mental. You can work on your game in practice all you want, but if you can't focus on doing the best possible job when the umpire says 'play', then it is all for naught. It truly is scary what kind of a dominant player Raonic could be if he could only get the mental demons out of his head. It's ironic that his compatriot Vasek Pospisil is going through the same kind of doubt and intense self-examination right now. They are both too talented to let their heads start playing tricks with their games.
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