When Milos Raonic arrived Down Under to prepare for the Australian Open, he braved an opportunity to don a wet suit and snorkel at a local aquarium and swim with the sharks.
One could call that good training for the ferocious company he now battles in the upper echelon of the ATP Tour.
The 23-year-old star from Thornhill, Ont. will be the No. 11 seed at the first Grand Slam of the year, after a 2013 season in which he won two tournaments, helped Canada’s Davis Cup team to historic success and broke into the top-10 singles rankings – something only previously achieved by Carling Bassett-Seguso in 1985. He gets a first-round meeting with Spaniard Daniel Gimeno-Traver, ranked 80th in the world.
Raonic has twice reached the round of 16, including last year, before being eliminated by Roger Federer. Surviving deep into Slams is a major priority for Raonic this season, and if he wants to break out of his bracket in Melbourne, he’ll likely have to tangle with No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro and No. 1 Rafael Nadal.
It was in Melbourne in 2011, when the Canadian’s explosion truly began with a head-turning run to the fourth round. A little-known 20-year-old Raonic toppled No. 10 Mikhail Youzhny and No. 24 Michaël Llodra before losing to No. 7 seed David Ferrer. Raonic burst into the top 100 for the first time, won his first ATP title in San Jose soon after, and Canada has been tuning in to him ever since.
Raonic, who as a boy once studied videotapes of his idol, Pete Sampras, winning Slams, is now fiercely chasing them himself. While only 23, his journey in the sport has already been extensive: from Richmond Hill’s Blackmore Tennis Club as an eight-year-old, with his dad running the ball machine for him at odd hours when the rates were cheap, to becoming a full-time athlete at Tennis Canada’s National Training Centre in Montreal, to working with coach Galo Blanco in Barcelona.
Raonic spent his off-season training in Monte Carlo for the first time with new coach Ivan Ljubicic, a former world No. 3 with whom he began working last spring after ending the partnership with Blanco, which had lasted more than two years.
“I’ve focused on very specific things in the off-season, especially the aggressive aspect and playing the score a little bit better on the return game specifically,” Raonic said from Melbourne. “And the best lesson I have learned from Ivan is: don’t waste so much mental energy in practices, save all your mental and emotional energy for matches.”
There was a period of adjustment after the change last season, and Raonic was not at his finest, but pushed through and caught the nation’s attention with an exciting run at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. With Ljubicic advising him on a more-aggressive style, Raonic responded by beating del Potro, then taking out fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil, before losing to Nadal in the final. He won the Lionel Conacher Award as The Canadian Press male athlete of the year.
“I’m trying to make better decisions in the right moments on the court,” Raonic said. “I feel I’m very confident right now. I know I’ve done a lot of really good work.”
Editor's note: The original version of this story on Milos Raonic incorrectly said he was the first Canadian to be in the top-10 singles ranking. In fact, Carling Bassett was ranked number 8 in tennis singles in 1985. This article has been changed to reflect this correction