After he’d won his match on Friday, Milos Raonic was asked about lucky charms. Does he have one?
Raonic has a way of looking at someone for a beat before he answers, as though he’s trying to figure out what they really mean.
But for this one, he was already shaking his head before the question had been finished.
“I used to have them,” Raonic said. “I don’t any more. I’ve let a lot of things go. Nothing guaranteed me I was going to stay healthy or play well, so I gave up on that pretty fast.”
Nobody asked Raonic what the charms were exactly. Based on their effectiveness, one assumes they were an upside-down crucifix and a black cat named Surgery.
In that moment, you felt the weight of the ancients on Raonic. Off a tennis court, there isn’t much brightness to him any more. He has the thousand-yard stare of a man who’s seen too much.
But, just this once, maybe things are breaking right for tennis’s unluckiest guy.
First, there was his seeding. Raonic is ranked 17th in the world. However, Wimbledon uses its own system of ranking based on grass-court competency. Here he’s seeded 15th. That small leap into the top 16 sheltered him from a front-loaded draw against top opponents.
Then, in just five days, Raonic’s quarter of the bracket has emptied out like a fire drill.
Alex Zverev (sixth) lost on Day 1. Stan Wawrinka (22nd) fell in the second round. On Thursday, Raonic’s next-man-up, 2018 finalist Kevin Anderson, fell quietly to Guido Pella, an Argentine journeyman.
Raonic is now the top-ranked man remaining in his quarter. There’s only one other top-25 player in there, Roberto Bautista Agut. Raonic has beaten Bautista Agut every time he’s played him.
You don’t want to curse it, but you’re going to anyway. This isn’t a straight-shot to the semi-finals. It’s a toboggan ride on a greased garbage-can lid into the semis. It’s as if someone blew a hole in the wall between Raonic and the semis and all he has to do is duck.
Of course, Raonic seemed nearly chagrined by this turn of fortune. Some people count their chickens. Raonic has had too many chickens die on him to put much faith in chickens, regardless of their number.
Raonic is at his best when he is asked to be philosophical. Presumably because he’s spent so much time on a hospital gurney and they don’t allow cell phones in operating rooms.
Like, losing. How’s that feel?
“The average top-10 player, if they play 18 tournaments, maybe they win two or three, so they’re losing 15 times a year,” he said. “As tennis players, you get used to losing from a very young age and losing quite a bit.”
That’s a profound thought we don’t often consider. A team athlete doesn’t lose as an individual. Her team does. If she is minded to, she can tell herself, “I was great, but Henrietta was terrible. This is her loss. I’m still a winner.”
A race-car driver or a golfer may not always win, but neither does he suffer an individual defeat. He’s just one of many in the pack who came up short.
But a tennis player – similar to a fighter – loses. It’s just him out there. On his own. Losing.
Once it’s over, he still has to go over and pack up his gear while the crowd watches him. The loser.
A top boxer may lose only once a year. A top-100 tennis player – so, among one of the most elite fraternities in the world – loses constantly, individually and very publicly. Week after week.
He may win here and there, but never the big one. He never gets anywhere near a major trophy. Because if he did, someone named Nadal or Djokovic would be there to stop him.
“We’re all a bunch of losers,” Raonic said. “You get over it.”
Maybe. But that’s not how this starts for most players. In order to have got this far, you must at some point have been a winner. You must’ve won constantly.
But now, at the final hurdle, you get to feel what everyone you stepped over on the way up feels. And you get to enjoy that feeling for as long as you continue to play.
Your winning days are done. You’ll make a ton of money, but there won’t be any of the sort of glory you’d hoped for.
That’s where Raonic – and every other guy in this generation save the big three – ends up. He’s found a way through it.
Someone such as Stefanos Tsitsipas hasn’t got there yet.
After his first-round loss here, the 20-year-old Greek was disconsolate.
“When you get so much support … from everyone and just ruin everything by yourself, it’s devastating.”
Someone asked if he planned to take a break before the hardcourt season ramps up.
“Maybe I don’t deserve a break,” Tsitsipas said.
Raonic has taken plenty of breaks in the past few years, few of which were planned. He no longer beats himself up after he loses. Instead, he seems contented as long as he remains healthy and can play tennis, even losing tennis.
I suppose that makes him a cynic, but what’s the other option? Anything else would be inviting a state of permanent torment.
Right now, he has a window of opportunity. Things won’t get tough (on paper, at least) until he meets Novak Djokovic in the semis. But that’s days off.
For now, Raonic is a winner. If you’re going to do this work, you have to learn to live in that moment when you can. And not dare to hope that just once, it’ll all fall into place.