In the development of any elite athlete, there comes a watershed moment, a test, a chance to gauge progress.
For Milos Raonic, that moment comes Tuesday night when he faces the world's No. 3 player, the legendary Swiss champion Roger Federer in the third round of the BNP Paribas Masters event here at Indian Wells. A year ago, at this same event, Raonic started off like a world beater, knocking off American Mardy Fish, only to lose to fellow up-and-comer Ryan Harrison in the third round.
But Raonic was still something of an unknown then; this year, things are noticeably, palpably different. He's the 27th seed, and has reached the final in three of his four tournament appearances thus far this season, winning in both Chennia and San Jose. In some ways, he's a little unlucky to get Federer this early, given that Federer is also on a massive roll. The Swiss great is 32-2 since last September's semi-final loss in the U.S. Open and, on the same February weekend Raonic was winning in San Jose, Federer won in Rotterdam. And from there, Federer went to Dubai and won in the finals against Britain's Andy Murray.
So he is in top form, too, and that makes their meeting the showcase match of the day, featuring Raonic's splendid serve and improving footwork against Federer's brilliant return of serve and all-around game.
There is also the intimidation factor of playing against arguably the greatest player in history, a 16-time Grand Slam champion who, at the age of 30, is playing as well as he has in a long time.
According to Raonic, he has been looking forward to playing Federer for a long time. How long exactly?
"I don't know," he replied. "Maybe after he had 10 Grand Slams."
That would qualify as a while.
Raonic has been on the court before with some of the tour's elite players. A couple of years back, he and fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil won a doubles match against Serbia's Novak Djokovic and Spain's Rafael Nadal, currently the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked singles players in the world. He also played Nadal twice in 2010, losing both matches.
Last summer, Federer played Pospisil at the Rogers Cup in Montreal and though Federer dispatched him in straight sets, Pospisil gave a good account of himself in the match. Nerves were a factor there and Raonic, who seems so serene on the court most days, said he is getting better and better at keeping his emotions under control, preparing as if it were just another match.
"I know I feel comfortable in these situations and it's what I look for – to be in these kinds of situations," Raonic said. "I want to be competing with these guys for these kinds of big tournaments. I understand that, with especially how consistent and well they play, you're going to have to beat at least one or two of these guys if you want to win the big event. That's what I look forward to, and I look forward to going out there, going toe-to-toe and just trying to fight my way through."
Raonic went on to say of playing Federer: "I know if I go out there and I do the things right, I will have my opportunities. You don't put …"
Raonic paused here, as if he were about to say, 'You don't put him on a pedestal.' Instead, what came out was: "You respect him for everything he's done, but you don't really put anybody ahead of you. You go out there trying to win, and that's your job for that day. You try to make the most of it. For me, it's going be what my priorities are within my game and just try to focus on myself moreso than who's across the net."
For those who don't follow tennis closely, Indian Wells is the de facto fifth Grand Slam, and the Federer-Raonic quarter is loaded with talent. It includes Spaniard David Ferrer (who defeated Raonic in his remarkable Australian run two years ago), plus Argentina's Juan Martin Del Potro. Among them, Ferrer (19), Federer (17), Del Potro (17) and Raonic (16) are four of the tour's top-five match winners this year.
After Raonic lost in the Memphis final to Austria's Jurgen Melzer, he took two weeks off and trained at nearby UCLA. Federer, meanwhile, has been all over the world – Europe, the Middle East and then played an exhibition in New York.
The two have been on the court once before – the practice court, two years ago, at Wimbledon, Federer reminded reporters. However, Federer said he watched some of Raonic's match against Lleyton Hewitt at the Australian Open, a day when Hewitt constantly won points with a wide serve on the deuce court, as he tried to exploit Raonic's backhand. Hewitt also kept the ball low against the towering Raonic, and it seemed to put him off his game.
"Look, he's obviously got a good serve," Federer said, "so there is not that much you can do on his serve. Against a guy who allows you to play much more from the baseline, you can come into a match and maybe impress a bit more by playing really aggressive. "With my own serve, you try not to make any mistakes there, and then you try your best on his serve … because he's known for his big serve and his big sort of one-two punch. Against a guy like this, you're obviously going to try to make it as athletic as possible.
"I'm looking forward to that match. He's a good player. Sometimes it can help and some it cannot help to never have played a guy before."
Two other factors that could possibly influence play: One is the wind, which can sometimes blow wildly out here, which historically tends to bother Federer. Two is the virus going around the tournament that caused a couple of the women's players, Vania King and Vera Zvonareva, to drop out. Federer acknowledged after Sunday's 6-4, 6-1 win over American Denis Kudla that he is bothered a little bit by an illness that is part cold and part flu and has his family, who is with him here, down for the count.
"Worried? Yes. I guess everyone is, yes. Not terrible temperature, but I have some things going on. But I'm best off from the family, so thank God I'm the tennis player here. The rest of them are struggling much more."