KEY BISCAYNE – The Toronto Blue Jays hat was a dead giveaway that there was another Canadian besides Milos Raonic on the practice court Wednesday.
The clash of colours with the neon Nike kit notwithstanding, Boca Raton’s Jesse Levine, a proud Can-American, was out with the No. 5 player in the world helping to put him through his paces.
Levine, 29, is Ottawa-born, Florida-adopted, and a former University of Florida star who became a top-70 player on the ATP Tour. A bad elbow took him out of the game, although he has yet to make an official retirement announcement.
In the last year or so he has done some television commentating, worked with juniors at a club in the Boca area, done some junior scouting for Nike and, for a short time early last year, was the coach of Madison Keys before Thomas Hogstedt suddenly appeared to supplant him.
And now, he is at least a part-time part of Team Raonic – a team that already includes a main coach in Riccardo Piatti, a “super-coach” in former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, a physical trainer and a physio.
“The idea came from my agent. He was working with Jesse towards the end of his career. He said he thought it would be a good way of having somebody there that could help me put in hours on court also without having to necessarily chase players (to practice with) – where I can have practice more dictated around me and somebody that I knew well and got along with well and a guy that’s a stand-up character as well,” Raonic said after a 6-3, 7-5 win over Viktor Troicki of Serbia in his first match after being forced to pull out of the Delray Beach final nearly a month ago with a one-inch tear in his hamstring.
“This week obviously we came down here early,” added Raonic, who was forced to miss Indian Wells because of the hamstring. “(Jesse) was helping out. We’re open to working together through a few weeks throughout the year to sort of fill out what I feel I need to get better. He’s somebody that I get along with great, is a little bit closer to my age as well, and somebody that I can play with on court and put in hard hours with as well.”
Raonic looked none the worse for the forced absence, something he often does even after the injury layoffs that have unfortunately become a regular scenario for him the last few years. He said he felt a little tightness around the hip area in general; that’s the vulnerable bit, the one he had surgery on a few years ago and very possibly a contributor to his ongoing issues with the adductor and hamstring.
Here’s what it looked like. Raonic must have been feeling okay; his first serve after play resumed following a rain interruption clocked in at … 138 mph.
For Raonic, a lack of what’s often referred to as “match toughness” is something he has always managed. After he strained his adductor in the 2016 Australian Open semi-finals against Andy Murray, he didn’t return to the Tour until Indian Wells. And he got to the final there, and then the quarter-finals in Miami as a follow-up.
“I’ve always been the kind of person that gets the confidence through the work rather than matches, constant matches. So I’ve been fortunate in that sense, because I’ve had to numerous times skip little periods of time. This time it’s a little bit more difficult, because after the last injury preceding the Australian Open I was out; got into shape, not the best shape; and then got hurt shortly after and then I was out again,” he said. “So I had a little bit of the compounding of maybe losing my shape. But I’ve put in the work that I can. I’ve prepared the best I can for this tournament. I’m not necessarily in the best position right now, but fortunately it’s a long tournament. Doesn’t mean things can’t change and I can’t get better throughout this event.”
Raonic faces American qualifier Jared Donaldson in the next round, but then the fun begins: he potentially has Jack Sock (who won that Delray final by default) in the fourth round and possibly Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals.