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Canadian tennis player MIlos Raonic trains in Barcelona last month. (For the Globe and Mail/SERGIO CARMONA)

Canadian tennis player MIlos Raonic trains in Barcelona last month.

(For the Globe and Mail/SERGIO CARMONA)

Australian Open

Raonic rebuilds his body and his game Add to ...

He worked out six full days a week over a 33-day period in November and December. The 6-foot-5 star built fitness and agility as he leaped hurdles, pumped weights, ran, slugged heavy medicine balls, darted through agility ladders, and worked out in weighted vests. On the court, he worked especially on his mobility, backhand, return game and volley.

“Before, when he practised with Tommy Robredo or Nico Almagro and they were top-10 or top-20, I wanted to show him that he wasn’t far away from them,” said Blanco, 36, who worked Raonic on both clay and hard-courts in the off-season. “But he’s more focused on himself now. I think this is good. He used to compare himself to the others. But now he knows his level is high, and he’s competing against himself.”

Yet, his eyes are on Murray and company. He’s yearning for more opportunities against them on the big stage.

“I feel close to the top guys now,” Raonic said. “I know if I do this work, I’ll have the successes I want to have.”

When Blanco began working with Raonic two years ago, the long-legged youngster had a uniquely powerful serve and forehand but needed lots of work to refine his game. They developed his ability to place those thundering shots in strategic areas and to place different kinds of serves into hard-to-reach areas rather than just relying on blind power.

“Now he is so powerful and has such control, he can do whatever he wants with his forehand, but his backhand can get better, so we are working on it,” said Blanco, who retired as a player in 2007.

“We are working a lot now on his volley and his return game. Those, I think, he must improve most this year if he wants to take one step more.”

They used repetitive drills and match play toward the crucial goal of winning more games off his return game, a weakness. Blanco had him work on more consistent, accurate and aggressive returns.

Mental strength

But defeating players like Federer and Djokovic also demands mental strength. They don’t crack. They exploit letdowns. Building that mental stamina takes time. Blanco said Raonic took “a big step” in that department last year, and he expects to see another this year.

“I used to dwell a lot on what I did wrong on a point,” Raonic said. “It would snowball as I focused on all the wrong things and it would pile up inside me. Critical moments in a match would pass me by because I wasn’t focused on the right things. But now, I don’t talk to myself as much. I’m more level. I lost a lot of matches because of it and realized I would never go where I want to go if I kept that up.”

They began the process last winter – no more huffing and negativity on the court. Raonic gets critical Tweets from people saying he should show more fire when he plays, but he says advice from various coaches over the years helped him arrive at his own tactic – avoid extreme highs and lows during match play. Blanco’s message is simple: If Raonic must talk to himself on the court during a match, the words must only be constructive.

In Spain, the two feuded routinely in a good-natured way. To work on volleying and tactics, they played a fiery, quick-paced game in which one of them played at the baseline, working on passing shots, while the other was stuck in a pressure situation at the net, focused on controlled, consistent volleying. Raonic joked that the drill would not only bring out his temper-management skills, but also those of the now even-keeled Blanco, who was sometimes hot-tempered himself in his playing days.

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