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Sampras in awe of Canadian's 'monster' serve

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TORONTO -- It all starts with the serve. Without it, Milos Raonic might just be another faceless Canadian tennis player on the tour. He would not have been able to convince Pete Sampras to play a tennis exhibition at Air Canada Centre on Thursday. He probably would not even be able to get his idol on the phone.

But that serve, which Sampras called "a weapon," is Raonic's calling card. It is the type of shot that helped catapult the 20-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., to 25th in the world rankings this year, and it might be what eventually makes him the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam.

For now, that serve is what has put him on the map.

"He's got a monster serve," said Sampras, who lost 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 to Raonic in an exhibition called The Face Off at Air Canada Centre. "He serves harder than Andre (Agassi) does ... when he can serve 135, 140 m.p.h. on the line and really pick your spots, that's a pretty good weapon to have. So he's on his way."

That's high praise from someone who was packed a serious serve during his 15 years on the pro tennis circuit.

Yet Sampras reminded everyone that Raonic is just starting out. His game features a big serve, but he needs work on his forehand and two-handed backhand. He has a long way to go before he can nudge Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer from the top. But after a breakout year in which the youngster won his first tournament and flirted with the top 20, there is plenty of potential.

"It's up to Milos," Sampras said. "He's doing all the right things. He's working hard, and when I see a young kid growing up, I see a weapon. And when you have a serve like he has, he's going to be very dangerous, he's going to be very tough to beat.

"Don't expect him to win Wimbledon next year. He can do it, but it's going to take some time. Let's be patient here. Let's not put too much pressure on the kid. He's got a great game and a great future."

While this had been billed as a highly competitive match of "hero versus prodigy," it was mostly an excuse to cash in on one of Canada's rising sports stars and have some fun.

Sampras reminded his much younger opponent to take it easy, because "I'm old enough to be his father." Still, the 40-year-old packed heat, hitting an ace to close out the first game and then celebrating by pointing his index finger in the air. When Raonic answered back with an ace on his first serve, Sampras gave his racquet to a fan and started to walk off the court.

The announced crowd of about 5,000 fans ate it up.

"Honestly, I don't play much tennis these days," Sampras said. "I've been dealing with a tight back and hips. Everything just falls apart when you're 40, it really does."

Sampras first won Wimbledon when he was 21. He did it with an attacking game that relied on firing a blistering serve at his opponent and then charging to the net to volley the return. It was a maddeningly effective -- if not boring -- style. But it seemed to go out of vogue after Sampras retired in 2003.

The top of the tennis pile is full of baseline players who rely on topspin and angles to win points. It makes for long rallies and exciting matches. So Sampras sees in Raonic a big server who could disrupt the current order if he ever learns to come to the net.

A lot of power is obviously generated from that towering frame, but the secret to Raonic's serve is repetition and hard work. Hours were spent in the early morning hitting ball after ball into an empty court. After school, he would go home and re-watch taped matches of Sampras to see if anything could be gleaned.

"We had a pretty good idea that he was going to be tall. Pretty much every man in his family is really tall," said Casey Curtis, who coached Raonic from ages nine through 17. "So that's why we spent a good amount of time on his serve."

The extra work paid off. En route to his first title in San Jose last February, Raonic rattled off a tournament-high 58 aces. The next week, he reached the final in Memphis and set a tournament record with 129 aces.

"The fear it puts in an opponent's eyes," Raonic said of his serve. "If he gets broken, (he knows) you're able to close out a set pretty much with your serve."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2011 C5

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