July 12th, 2024

Raonic hopes to remain healthy entering match against Nagal at Indian Wells

By Stephanie Myles, The Canadian Press on March 6, 2024.

Canadian Milos Raonic practises at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephanie Myles **MANDATORY CREDIT**

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – When Milos Raonic takes the court at the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday night, the patriarch of the current Canadian tennis wave will be back on the big stage, where he belongs.

For how long is the question.

Raonic, from Thornhill, Ont., has been trying to return from a two-year injury absence since last summer. And when he has played, he has looked much like his vintage self.

The challenge has been to keep playing. His last two defeats have come on injury retirements, and he comes into the BNP Paribas Open having just begun to play points again a few days ago.

On Wednesday night, Rafael Nadal’s bad luck became Raonic’s good fortune, as the Spaniard, who was to be Raonic’s first-round opponent, withdrew from the tournament.

Instead, the Ontario tennis player will face off against India’s Sumit Nagal.

Nadal said it was a tough decision to withdraw.

“But I can’t lie to myself and lie to the thousands of fans,” he said in a statement.

Raonic, who spent the better part of two years trying to get back on court and the better part of the last nine months trying to stay on the court, can completely relate.

But his story is one of determination to finish a stellar career knowing he gave himself every opportunity. And, at 33, he’s had his time.

The Canadian men’s tennis landscape is going through some lean times as Raonic’s countrymen, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov, battle to live up to their precocious promise. Both have been the targets of consistent and sometimes vile criticism as their fortunes have waned over the last year or two.

“I would say that with Félix and Denis, a lot has been expected, which was different than it was for me because they were both great juniors,” Raonic said. “They both won a junior Grand Slam, and Felix had an ATP point at a Challenger at age 15.

“They’re 23 and 24, and already they have younger guys behind them kind of putting pressure on them. Normally you have a bit more time – especially as good as they are. But from the outside, they just have to focus on doing their things well. And those are things you just have to figure out over time.

“I think the fair thing is that they should be doing much better, from what you expect from them. And sometimes I’d look at some of their results and I’d be surprised as well.”

Shapovalov, who is just a few tournaments into a return after a six-month absence with a knee injury, is still feeling his way.

“This sport involves a lot of confidence. So, you just have to kind of stay with it, maybe try to make some smarter decision in those (key) moments,” said Shapovalov, whose ranking is down to No. 131 but, like Raonic, was able to enter on an injury-protection ranking. He plays Dutchman Botic Van de Zandschulp in the first round on Thursday.

For Auger-Aliassime, whose ranking is down to No. 31 but has a first-round bye at Indian Wells because 32 players are seeded, it comes down to being an eternal optimist even if he’s aware of the criticism.

“It’s fine that people have their opinion. But it’s my own standards that I’m not meeting,” he said. “Once you’ve established that standard at a young age, it’s almost like you can’t ever drop below it. And so the criticism is normal. You could win a Grand Slam tournament. But if the next year you don’t win one again, you get criticized.

“We always have better advice for others than we do for ourselves. But while people criticize, I’m looking for solutions.”

Shapovalov can relate to Auger-Aliassime’s struggle.

“I think it’s been tough because me and Félix have kind of been going through the same thing,” he said. “We’ve been struggling physically a little bit last year and it’s tough when you get back into it, you’re expected to be playing well all the time. But tennis is very close in margins, and especially nowadays, there’s so many good young guys and everyone’s obviously coming up and gunning for us as well.”

Shapovalov said he and Auger-Aliassime have been working hard and staying positive.

“So, I’m more than sure it’s going to click for both of us. I’m not too worried about Felix, and I’m sure he’s not too worried about me either,” he added.

Raonic is back at Indian Wells for the first time since 2019, when he lost in the semifinals to Dominic Thiem. He made the final in 2016, and the semifinals on two other occasions.

He heard the news about his first-round opponent while he was exploring nearby Joshua Tree National Park with his wife Camille.

And while he’s played Nadal 10 previous times – beating him at Indian Wells in 2015 and in Brisbane in 2017, he hasn’t played him in an official tournament for more than seven years.

He said he hasn’t even seen Nadal in five years.

“It’s just exciting, more so because I haven’t given much thought to draws since I’ve been coming back,” Raonic said. “I;m not seeded so you know that it’s kind of a coin toss.

“It’s not like I have a lot of matches to watch of his to see what he’s really been doing. But if he’s here, he’s going to be playing well. I think he expects a high minimum standard from himself, so it’ll be a tough match. Got to do my things as always.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2024.

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