Milos Raonic is full of confidence after winning the SAP Open in San Jose for the third year running. The feeling has become customary for the Canadian this time of year, having claimed all four of his career ATP titles in early-year, hard-court events.
But things are about to get much tougher.
The 22-year-old, currently ranked No. 14 in the world, will try to chase down another title on the indoor hard courts in Memphis this week, before Masters 1000 events hit next month. All the best players on the ATP Tour will be primed for the outdoor hard courts of Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami, where bigger prize money and hefty ranking points are there for the taking.
Raonic hasn't had to face a top-10 player since No. 2 Roger Federer eliminated him from the Australian Open in January. The Canadian says he was in a zone in San Jose last week, and the test now becomes sustaining that level no matter who he faces.
In San Jose, Raonic's serve was at its best – speedy and strategically placed, skipping off the fast surface. From the baseline, he played risky and was rewarded. And most of all, he returned service well, an area in which he has been weakest, one the top players have exposed.
"The main thing that really stood out about my return game and, obviously, I was returning well and seeing the serve well, but it was more so the intensity that I was starting all the points," Raonic said by phone from Memphis on Tuesday. "I was very focused before every point and I was playing every point with 100-per-cent intensity.
"When I'm like that, it gives me more freedom because I don't have to think about forcing myself on. Also, it puts more pressure on my opponent. This is a big goal for me now."
On his previous two visits to Memphis, Raonic was the runner-up, falling to Andy Roddick in 2011, and Jurgen Melzer in 2012. He's the tournament's No. 2 seed behind Marin Cilic of Croatia, ranked No. 12 in the world. Raonic's first opponent will be American Jack Sock on Wednesday.
On the way to the Memphis final, Raonic's path might cross No. 3 seed John Isner of the U.S. (world No. 16). The two have met only once before, when Isner knocked Raonic out of the Rogers Cup in Toronto last summer.
On Tuesday, it was revealed that Raonic and the Canadian Davis Cup team will return to Vancouver for a home quarter-final tie against Italy in April. The Canadians are fresh off an upset of Spain, a team which was missing its biggest stars (Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco).
Canada and Italy will meet on the speedy indoor hard court in Thunderbird Sports Centre at the University of British Columbia – the same venue where the Canadian squad has played two of its last three home Davis Cup ties, and the same surface as San Jose, on which Raonic has thrived.
Davis Cup tournament director Gavin Ziv said there was interest from Calgary and Winnipeg in advance of the February tie against Spain, but availability of those venues in April and the short timeline between the two ties made returning to Vancouver a logical choice.
"The choice of Vancouver was an easy one in regards to the success we experienced in Vancouver," Ziv said. "We were so happy with the atmosphere and electricity that we saw in that venue, which really helped give Team Canada an edge over Spain."
Team captain Martin Laurendeau will select the Canadian side after he has watched the men play ATP events in Memphis, Delray Beach, Fla., Indian Wells and Miami.
If Canada beats Italy, it would play a semi-final tie on the road in September, facing the winner of Serbia-United States.