Milos Raonic is having an amazing week in Montreal -- and not in an entirely good way. The role he played Thursday in helping create the greatest day in the history of Canadian tennis was marred by a controversy that -- if I know anything about my colleagues in the media -- isn’t going to go away overnight, no matter what.
And that could put a damper on a wonderful story that has been developing all week.
First, the uplifting, good stuff: Seeded No. 11 at the Coup Rogers (the money name for the Canadian Open), Raonic recorded a major upset in the fourth round when he knocked off one of the most menacing hard-court contenders, former US Open champion and No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro. The win took on greater resonance when his countryman Vasek Pospisil answered the call at gut-check time and won a third-set tiebreaker over No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych.
Canada hasn’t put two men into the quarterfinals of its domestic throwdown since before either Raonic or Pospisil was born. Grant Connell and Andrew Sznajder pulled off the double, but it was a mite flukey -- Connell never cracked the ATP top 70 in singles, and Sznajder topped out at No. 46. Raonic is just 22, but he’s already ranked No. 13.
That’s an impressive ranking, but some pundits are disappointed that Raonic hasn’t punched through into the top 10 yet. That’s because Raonic, who has an atomic serve and a state-of-the-art forehand -- in an era dominated by this shot -- broke through as the ATP Newcomer of the Year in 2011, when he leaped from No. 156 in January up into the top 25 (by July). He’s been a one step forward, one step back player since then, but perhaps that’s judging by too strict a standard.
Given the incident that marred Raonic’s win over del Potro, the “one step forward” analogy is apt, as is the speculation on the standards by which we judge players, albeit in a different way.
Raonic got hammered in the court of public opinion for failing to alert umpire Mohamed Lahyani that his foot had indisputably skidded into the net at about the same time that his inside-out forehand went whistling past del Potro. At the time, Raonic had a set in hand and was down a break at 3-4, but after Lahyani missed the infraction (he was watching Delpo) and Raonic remained mum (while looking a lot like a kid who had just stolen a piece of candy), Delpo went into a funk so deep that he never won another point and lost 7-5, 6-4.
I personally can’t get as worked up about this incident as Delpo, but some pundits did. Admittedly, it isn’t my reputation or the size of my paycheck on the line. Lahyani didn’t blow a call as much as get caught in an awkward situation in which he was unable to make one, while Raonic -- still a youth by any measure -- seemed so caught up in the situation that it probably clouded his judgment. I feel comfortable saying that if you took Raonic out of the moment and asked what his response would be if he had to do it all over again, he’d volunteer to give up the point.
Manners and the solid ethics of tennis are bred into a player at an early age pretty successfully. (Isn’t that what Jimmy Connors is always complaining about?) And everyone is capable of making a mistake -- especially one of omission -- under duress.
Lahyani's first reaction when Delpo questioned the noncall was to say, “The ball was dead for me.” The replay shows that Delpo was heading east, and the ball was heading west, both at a rapid clip. There’s no question at all that the shot was a clean winner.
Although that doesn’t excuse a missed call, or Raonic declining to point out his own infraction, it does relegate the infraction to the realm of the truly minor. I was stunned that Delpo was so upset by Lahyani's refusal to overrule the call that he never won another point. The situation had to be at least as distracting to Raonic, who clearly understood his own role in the affair.
As much as I believe in playing by the rules, I’m not going to get all lawyerly about this. It was a noncontroversy about a noncall. You know what the real “good sport” response to this would be? Writing it off as one of those weird things that happen now and then, and moving on without making much of a fuss. I can’t see Rod Laver acting as Raonic did, but I also can’t imagine him going to pieces the way Delpo did, either.