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Raonic prepared to serve up yet another surprise

CANADIAN tennis players have been called many things over the years.

Milos Raonic has taken encouragement from his previous matches against Roger Federer. Picture: Getty Sport
Milos Raonic has taken encouragement from his previous matches against Roger Federer. Picture: Getty Sport

Most of them derogatory. But rarely have they been compared to Glasgow buses.

Eugenie Bouchard yesterday became the first player from the land of the Maple Leaf and Niagara Falls to book a place in a grand slam tennis final. Some 24 hours later Milos Raonic has it in his power to become the second. As improbable as it sounds, two Canadians could still rock up at Sunday night's Champions dinner.

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While such a prospect would be welcomed by Michael Downey, the Lawn Tennis Association's new Canadian chief executive, and Bob Brett, the LTA's new head of player development - both of whom are former employees of Tennis Canada - it would require the man who left Montenegro at the age of three to serve up quite a shock. Raonic faces Roger Federer second on Centre Court today and most of the tennis world does not give him a prayer.

Fortunately for his sake, Raonic is the kind of character who does not give a damn what anybody thinks. The 23-year-old from Podgorica is a robotic individual who grew up with posters of Pete Sampras on his wall, but he is starting to perform a pretty fair impression. This is already his finest major performance and, when the rankings emerge on Monday, at worst he will be ranked the sixth best tennis player in the world. His steady rise has an inexorable, inevitable quality to it.

Do not be surprised then that he regards the so-called Greatest Player of All Time as merely another obstacle in his path to be obliterated. "I've played [Federer] four times now," said Raonic, coached these days by Ricardo Piatti and Ivan Ljubicic. "He's got the better of me all four times. But I haven't played him in more than a year and a bit, so I think I'm a different player. I've got in close with him in the past and I've found a lot of those things which I can pull away to give me belief that I can do this. There's no point just talking about it. I've got to step up and do it."

It promises to be a beauty contest between two of the best serves in the sport. While Raonic has sent down a remarkable 147 aces, with a top speed of 141mph, balanced out by a meagre six double faults, Federer regularly takes pace off his serve [his top speed is 127mph] to concentrate on accuracy. Guess which Raonic thinks is superior.

"I think very highly of my serve," said the Canadian, who will attempt to boss the centre of the court with his serve and booming ground strokes. "I think very highly of his. But I've got to hope that my serve's better than his in that situation. I've got to hope that my serve can get me through a lot of difficult situations in whatever sort of rises up.

"Obviously, Roger is capable of doing so many things. He's quick. He can hurt you. He can do pretty much anything he wants with the ball. I'm a little bit more predictable, but I go about my job and I get the job done. It's about trying to make him play on my terms rather than me playing on his. If I can do that, I can create the possibilities for myself."

The grand narrative of the Wimbledon last four is that of the generation game. Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov, both in the first major semi-finals at the age of 23, take on two men in Federer and Novak Djokovic who know little else. If the two young guns can prevail it would be the youngest final here since 2006.

"The only sort of thing if you can call it a surprise, is where I've been doing it," said Raonic, whose five titles to date have come on hard courts. "I would have thought maybe I could have done better on the hard court slams quicker and earlier. But I've been giving myself the possibility to face those top guys more consistently. Each time I feel like I get closer."

Raonic, unlike Dimitrov, was never the most talented of juniors. However, like the Bulgarian, his achievement is no overnight success. "In 2011, I broke through and I did a lot of things quickly, but there was a lot of developing I still needed to do," said Raonic.

"There was a lot of learning, understanding about myself, about other people, about situations, about tennis, about life outside of tennis. I'm playing a guy that is standing in my way of what I want to achieve, and I've got to focus on the situation, think of how best to deal with it to achieve what I want. But I guess you can't really outrun time."

The only problem for Raonic is that his opponent today is the one man on the planet who seems capable of doing precisely that.

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