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The Raonic riddle: What's up that sleeve?

The puzzle pieces fit together for fifth seed Milos Raonic.
By Nicholas McCarvel
Monday, September 1, 2014

What’s Milos Raonic hiding up that sleeve at the US Open?

The most talked-about fashion accessory on the New York tennis scene this year hasn’t been an ill-advised dress or a must-have headpiece, instead it’s a tube of fabric worn on the right forearm of one of the biggest servers in the game.

But is it even serving a purpose itself?

“In Miami it started out as a necessity to protect a rash from the sun,” said Austin Nunn, Raonic’s manager. “He started winning with it on, so now it’s become part of the routine that he uses on a daily basis.”

Raonic first wore the sleeve at the Miami Masters event after a masseuse had applied a massage cream to his right forearm, which had an immediate allergic reaction. The recommendation from doctors was to keep the rash out of the sun for a week. The problem? Raonic plays tennis for a living.

So, Nunn explained, he found a sleeve usually used by fishermen for Raonic in a local shop that served its covering purpose for the rash as the Canadian made a run to the quarterfinals. He wore the sleeve throughout tournaments in Monte Carlo and Oeiras (Portugal), and then played without it for one match, on May 6 in Madrid.

It was the last match he’s played sans sleeve.

“The sleeve started in Miami when I actually needed it,” Raonic told reporters Saturday after a straight-sets win over Victor Estrella Burgos, sleeve intact. “Then it stuck around. My team would say it helps me. I haven't found a reason to argue that so far.”

“With a guy like Milos, who is so specific on what he does every single day with his preparation, it’s just become part of his whole process,” Nunn said.

Athletic compression sleeves have been popularized particularly in the NBA recently, with stars like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwight Howard wearing them in games. After wearing the fishermen’s sleeve for one match, Raonic’s team found a basketball compression sleeve for him to use.

“Certain kind of compression clothing have been used by power lifting athletes and it shows benefits for heavy lifting,” said Satoshi Ochi, head strength and conditioning coach at the USTA. “But these types of compression clothes are super tight and it is almost impossible to wear and play tennis. I am not sure exact reason why Raonic has been using elbow sleeve ... but, it seems working for him very well.”

Raonic, who had a breakout performance at Wimbledon – making the semifinals before losing to Roger Federer – donned a white sleeve at the All England Club. He’s 31-10 in matches with the sleeve on.

And now, the sleeve has even spawned its own Twitter account. But with the rash long gone and the sleeve still here, has Raonic entered into full-blown superstition mode?

“I'm not gonna argue when things are going OK,” he said, smiling.

There’s a certain aesthetic the sleeve brings to Raonic’s look, as well.

“From a fashion standpoint, the sleeve offers Raonic an opportunity to stand out,” said Heather Zeller, a sports fashion writer. “Whether or not it's a medical necessity, the sleeve has become a fun decorative element for Raonic. Since the sleeves are offered in a range of colorways and vibrant patterns, it makes sense for him to coordinate the accessory with his on-court wardrobe.”

Saturday marked the debut of a fluorescent yellow and black patterned sleeve, which looked to complement his on-court kit. Raonic has worn sleeves in blue, black, blue with patterns and the white he used at Wimbledon.

So why does the sleeve stay on?

Raonic, Nunn said, likes the feeling of the sleeve on his serving arm: It’s a comfort thing. The sleeve is not worn during practice, Nunn confirmed.

Sleeves in tennis haven’t become a norm. In 2001, Martina Hingis debuted a shirt with one long sleeve and another short, though neither were compression. The shirt was seen more as a fashion statement than a competitive edge. Though, Hingis told reporters in Indian Wells that spring, she liked the coverage of the top.

“[The sleeve supplies] support for the muscle,” Hingis said in an interview dated March 2001. “It's a little tighter than the shirts I had in the past. But when you're on court, you don't really think of it. It definitely gives me some kind of support, yeah.”

The sleeve could catch on. Women’s players Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka have tweeted out admiration for the look of the sleeve. Sunday evening, Serena tweeted the following:

“@milosraonic I love your arm sleeve. It's super cool and different. Will it help my serve? I want to serve like you. #CanIHaveOne”

Raonic was asked by Azarenka if she could have one, too.

“Only if you ‘believe in the sleeve,’” he replied.

Seems like Milos does believe. Do you?