Raonic & Co hope to prove Canadians’ sporting worth beyond the ice

In a country dominated by hockey, nice-guy sport stars may need to be a bit more ruthless to succeed in other sports

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2016, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 July, 2016, 9:42am

As Toronto’s Milos Raonic was preparing to meet Scotland’s Andy Murray last week in the final of Wimbledon, proud Canadians all over Hong Kong were sitting down in front of their TVs or flocking to bars to support the towering 25-year-old with the howitzer serve – and for good reason.

He was the first male player from his country to appear in the final of a tennis grand slam. Naturally, the home crowd and assorted dignitaries in the Royal Box were pulling for Murray, who was a prohibitive favourite.

But regardless, after a century or two of watching everyone else enjoy their native sons in tennis’ biggest final, Canadians were going to thoroughly enjoy their long overdue moment.

The son of a nuclear engineer and computer engineer, Raonic emigrated to Canada from war-torn Montenegro at the age of three.

He is, not surprisingly, an unfailingly nice and cultured young man.Raonic spent an off day during this year’s Australian Open visiting the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibit of Andy Warhol and Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei’s art.

There is a pride, a very Canadian pride I guess, in Raonic being a well-rounded human being with a profound intellectual curiosity

Asked at one in his post-match press conferences for his impression of the show, his face lit up.

“I think that whatever iteration you see of Andy Warhol’s life,” he said, “has been redefined over many years due to his unfortunate passing.

But Weiwei’s story is constantly building and you’re hearing something different.” And this was a tennis press conference.

There is a pride, a very Canadian pride I guess, in Raonic being a well-rounded human being with a profound intellectual curiosity.

But sometimes Canadians are just too darn nice. They were born to apologise.

I’m sorry, but it’s true. Don’t take it personal either because some of us were damn lucky to grow up in such a courteous country and the more we see of the world the truer that becomes. Which is fine and great and helps to make the place an annual fixture at the top of the world’s most liveable countries index.

But the reality is that at some point to succeed at the upper echelon of international sports, you have to be driven beyond logic and either blessed, or cursed, with an uncompromisingly competitive nature.

It certainly has not been an issue on the ice for Canadians. No one has ever played hockey as well and as hard at every single meaningful level as Canada. They are most definitely not nice when it comes to hockey and that is by design because they are voraciously protecting hallowed turf.

But there is a spate of talented young Canadians invading the NBA now, including the 2015 Rookie of the Year and first overall pick Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Yet despite the presence of Wiggins, who many deem too nice to be a true NBA superstar, and a number of other upcoming young NBA players, last summer the national team played a lacklustre and soft match in losing to an inferior Venezuela team in the semi-finals of an Olympic qualifying tournament they had completely dominated.

Last weekend in Manila, minus Wiggins but still with a number of NBA players, they had one final chance to qualify by beating France but came up short again.

And within an hour or so of that game, Raonic lost in straight sets to Murray. In fairness Murray played spectacularly and almost faultless tennis in arguably the finest display of his career. Murray is the antithesis of the laid-back Raonic. He plays tennis like he is haunted by a character from Macbeth.

He scowls like a mad man while repeatedly self-flagellating himself on court. There is a barely concealed torturous tone to his game and while it is often hard to watch, few can doubt the depth of his drive and ambition and he hardly cares who sees it.

In defeat Raonic, was a perfect gentleman and more power to him. He said the loss stung and no doubt it did. However, it hardly seemed like it would haunt him like it would Murray, or even Novak Djokovic and the stoic Roger Federer.

Certainly, Raonic cares and there is no need for him to throw tennis racquets and tantrums to prove that. Supposedly the young NBA stars on the national team care as well, particularly Cleveland Cavaliers centre Tristan Thompson who was fresh off a deep championship run but still made it to Manila to help the national team.

But at some point you have to be blatantly ruthless to succeed at the most elite levels, particularly internationally.

It’s ok to make a few enemies on the tennis or basketball court because while nice is nice, winning is nicer.