Milos Raonic returns to the Australian Open as the 23rd seed following a meteoric rise in the rankings that earned him 2011 ATP Newcomer of the Year honours. Fully recovered from hip surgery and brimming with confidence after winning the Chennai Open last week, the Thornhill, Ont., native with a rocket of a serve is a much improved and more focused player than he was at this time last year, when he became the first qualifier since 1999 to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open. Raonic spoke at length during a conference call about his preparedness for Melbourne -- and for the 2012 season in general:
On changes in off-season regime
MR: We worked more specifically. Last year, I think there was a big broad general that needed improvement in my game. So we worked more volume and more basic stuff just to raise the level of my base, of my fitness and my tennis, whereas this year we didn't do as much volume off the court. We did as much volume on the court. But off the court, we did more specific stuff, more explosive stuff, more weights, all this kind of stuff, because I felt I already had the endurance and all that. It was just a matter of getting quicker, getting more agile and faster, especially coming back from the hip surgery. So this was a big focus. And then, when it came to tennis practice, we worked a lot on the return game and a lot on the baseline game and especially being able to dictate more with my forehand.
On improving mental toughness
MR: It was something we spent a lot of time working on -- just trying to get control of the point as early as possible, not hesitating and trying to take things into my own hands. Obviously, there are some certain parts of the match where you just want to make your opponent play. But most of the time, especially during the first week, it's hard without too much confidence, it's hard to judge this. Your goal is to play your game and stick to it ... The main thing really that we did speak about was, when you start the year, you start from a fresh sheet, you start with zero points and it's what you create out of that year. To not rush. Eventually, it's going to kick in. And fortunately, it started off well right away [in Chennai] because I knew I did the right work and I knew it came together and it just all came together in competion quite early.
On winning so early in season
MR: It's surprising in the way that you don't go out there expecting that. If you do and you fall short, it's a really demoralizing way to start the year. I knew that the possibilities were there, for sure, because I felt last year's off-season I did well but this off-season I did a lot better. I felt the level was there. I think I made big strides in improvement. Not only the mental game was going to help me get through the big points. But I also thought my technical and my tennis ability was going to help me as well. So that definitely took some pressure off the mental side as well.
On being seeded 23rd in Australian Open
MR: It's a positive thing. It does help out a lot. There's a big difference between being seeded from 25 to 32 [and] seeded 17 to 24 because, in the third round, as a 23 seed, I can only play [opponents] seeded between 9 and 16, so it definitely makes a big difference. It's good thing, but in a way it's not a thing I think about too much. My aspirations aren't just to have a good tournament. My aspirations are to really compete for the tournament all the way to the end and I feel I can. Obviously, things are going to have to come together, but I feel I have the ability to.
On competing with Top 10 players
MR: I believe I can compete with them, in the sense that I know I have the [talent] level. For me, I just have to put the things together. Obviously, a better player than me, if we play a lot of times, probably they'll still turn out on top, they'll probably beat me more times than I'll beat them, but that's the beauty about tennis, it's anything on that given day and the goal is just to be better than them on that day. I really just go out there and just try to do the things I need to do and I don't think about who I'm playing. I think more about what I need to do and what I can do and what my strengths are.
On surpassing last year's Australian Open success
MR: I'm not really getting ahead of myself. I know the things I need to do and I know that I'm just going to keep getting better and better with more matches, so I'm really just going after it as if it's my first time here. It's fun to play here and I have really good memories and I even have superstitions because of how I did last year -- where I eat and so forth -- but outside of that, when it comes to a tournament, you treat it like it's the first time and you treat every match as if it's a different situation. You can't really connect the things.
On superstitions beyond eating
MR: We stay at the same hotel. We stay all on the same floor together -- we stay as a team -- and where I eat, that's the only thing.
On improving agility
MR: Agility, it's more the anticipation and being quick on the first two steps. It's not only net work, but it's also a big part with the returns. I remember most of last year, if you take all of my numbers together, when I was returning first serves, I think I was winning only 15 per cent of the points, whereas last week [in Chennai] I was about 30. We worked a lot on this, making sure I'm geting quickly on the returns as wel as at the net, trying to anticipate and cover one side, not just only stay in the middle and let the ball go by me if they hit a good shot. Sort of, try to put more pressure on my opponents.
On rise up rankings
MR: Honestly, the quicker I get good, the happier I will be. It's obviously better to be at the top -- if I can be -- sooner than later. And after that, it's really just about levelling out and doing what you need to do to maintain. And once you reach that level, it's always about improvement. You can't really just ever get to a level and stop there. You've got to keep improving because, as you see with the top guys, they're always getting better and that's the main thing, really. If you get to the top, to stay at the top, it's that constant progress and development. So, for me, the quicker I get to the top, the happier I am, for sure. But then, my work's not done. There's still a lot of work to be done after that.
On being beacon for Canadian tennis
MR: It's fun. It's a good thing. It's obviously something I wish I had more time to embrace from the aspect of helping it grow. But I think right now, the most important thing is through results. I think that's how not only tennis is going to grow to the older population. But to the young kids, it's going to be inspirational and kids are going to see, as a Canadian, there is success in tennis. So really, right now, I focus on myself and I think it has a ripple effect [from] the fact that it does help Canadian tennis. Not only the young kids or club members. But also I think it helps the other pros that are playing. I thinks it's a good effect. It's fun to know this kind of effect is taking place. Not only that the tennis world and Canada is appreciating my tennis. But the general pop is appreciating it's taking its effect and it's a positive one.
On game plan for 2012 season
MR: We have a lot of the year pretty much figured out. Obviously, the Masters, the Grand Slams, the Olympics and the Davis Cup weeks are in there. And then you have weeks in between that you play. It's what you choose. I don't think at all this year I'm going to go more than three weeks at a time. Most of the time, it's only going to be two weeks at a time and one week, whether it's a training week or a rest week. But I'll do a few times three weeks. But the focus is going to be playing my best tennis at the big tournaments, where I wish I could have done a bit better last year.
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