Matt Zemek

My mother used to tell me a story about her childhood. She was 5 years old. I won’t give the year, but let’s just say it was before color television came into existence. She lived in Chicago at a time when record players and radios were regular nighttime diversions and television was just beginning to establish a foothold in the national culture. 

The story is not a complicated one. It is merely that her younger brother — my younger uncle — was born while she had to go to the hospital for a relatively minor procedure. She recalls her father making a brief stop at the hospital to make sure she was all right, but the combination of the lack of severity of her condition and the enormity of another birth in the family meant that she spent that night fundamentally alone at the hospital.

She sat in the shadows while her father tended to her mother, and other extended family members similarly oohed and ahhed and cooed and mooed about her “baby brother.” Decades later, the sense of loneliness felt as a little girl still came through my mother’s voice.

This is what it might have felt — if only for a brief moment — for Milos Raonic last August in Montreal.

Raonic lost to Adrian Mannarino in his first match in Canada. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that Raonic’s wrist was not healthy. One month later, Raonic had surgery on that wrist, the latest in a long series of injuries which has befallen the highly unlucky pro. If Kei Nishikori’s body is made of glass, Raonic’s is made of delicate porcelain. Unlike Grigor Dimitrov — a player who has remained relatively healthy over time, but squanders matches because of deficient coping skills — Raonic had become a fairly solid and competent ATP player when healthy. He simply hasn’t been able to remain physically whole for long periods of time. Injuries have inevitably demanded recuperation periods and all the frustrations one would normally associate with them.

When Raonic lost to Mannarino, his wrists not up to par, he was gutted enough within the context of his start-and-stop career. Yet, just when Raonic bowed out of Montreal, someone else entered the spotlight in a way Raonic had never been able to match, with the possible exception of the 2016 Wimbledon final against Andy Murray.

Denis Shapovalov, a kid with fiery emotions and a dazzling, electric collection of shots, zoomed to the Montreal semifinals. He beat Juan Martin del Potro. He then upset Rafael Nadal after losing the first set and trailing 3-0 in the final-set tiebreaker. Raonic has packed stadiums in Canada when he plays there, but Shapovalov packed the stadium AND sent a lightning bolt of excitement through the stands at Uniprix Stadium.

It’s not as though Raonic has ever lacked support in Canada. The point of emphasis was that Shapovalov had accessed two key ingredients of popularity beyond the national identity he shared with Raonic: 1) A flashy, aesthetically appealing playing style; 2) youthful exuberance. Neither quality makes Shapovalov a better tennis PLAYER than Raonic, but those qualities influence entertainment value and emotional resonance. 

The way athletes or other public figures connect with a broader audience is not a math equation or a scientific formula. It contains some evident surface explanations, but the specific connection goes beyond them and exists at a deeper gut level. What attracts a sports fan to an athlete is simultaneously evident yet complicated. Playing style is part of the puzzle, emotions another, life circumstances another, but how they all combine can — and does — create a uniquely potent cultural or market-based force.

Athletes, politicians, coaches — these and other public figures can’t entirely control how much they are loved by the public. Some are respected, some are admired, some are even appreciated… but only a few are loved.

When Shapovalov rocketed into the Canadian sports consciousness last August, it was clear that he was loved in a way Raonic never was. It wasn’t Raonic’s fault, much as my mom — at 5 years old — hadn’t done anything wrong to deserve her night of loneliness. How could Canada NOT fall in love with this irresistible teenage breath of fresh air, humbled by a bad mistake in Davis Cup which sobered his mind and created a redemption narrative to add a human touch to his drama? 

The love from those Montreal crowds was not inappropriate or wrong; it was simply a cruel circumstance for Raonic that his steady, workmanlike rise in tennis — achieved with a Pete Sampras-like glacial exterior — didn’t ripple through the sports pages or airwaves the way Shapo’s surge did last summer.

It was so profound and undeniable: While an injured Raonic receded into the shadows, preparing for surgery, the younger kid — the tennis equivalent of my mom’s “baby brother” — took the limelight before the eyes of a giddy country in a way which never did happen to Raonic, certainly not at 18 years of age. Raonic, an earnest individual with a respect for tennis and the commitment it requires, surely welcomed the rise of another Canadian ATP performer. Yet, from the outside, the sensation created by Shapo felt like the ceding of the spotlight to the younger generation. An empathetic person would have identified with Raonic in that moment.

This brings us to the conclusion of this piece, framed by Raonic’s win over Sam Querrey to make the Indian Wells semifinals.

No, Raonic did not play tremendous tennis. Coach Goran Ivanisevic was brutally unsparing in his mid-match assessment on ESPN television. Raonic won because Querrey misfired in important moments. Raonic has a long way to go in terms of reaching his 2016 form. Moreover, if or when other superstars return to the tour and get in good playing shape, it will be that much harder for Raonic to rise to the upper tiers of the sport. He is far from a finished product in this latest attempt to bounce back from injuries.

Yet, the simple reality that Raonic has made an Indian Wells semifinal is proof enough of this Canadian’s resilience, professionalism, and workmanlike competitive virtues. He will never electrify like Shapovalov, and Felix Auger-Aliassime is quickly rising through the ranks as another Canadian teenager with a blindingly bright future. Yet, with this one Indian Wells run — it doesn’t matter how impressive you think it is, either; the mere fact of it is testament enough — Raonic has stepped from the shadows of last August.

He is not quietly sitting in the hospital while another member of the Canadian tennis family gets the love and attention. He is striving, struggling, not finding his way back with ease, but surviving. His game doesn’t jump off the page. His play style doesn’t elicit romantic poetry. Yet, those and other emotion-fueled atmospherics don’t — and can’t — apply to all athletes.

Milos Raonic has no control over whether he shoots Cupid’s arrow through the hearts of Canadians. He can try, however, to work as hard as he can and remain relevant to the point where TV cameras have to remain fixed on him.

Making the semis of Indian Wells is exactly how that happens — and can continue to happen — for this very good Canadian tennis player.

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