On the Arthur Ashe Court at the U.S. Open in September, Milos Raonic squared off in the round of 16 against Andy Murray, a hotly anticipated match between the rising young star from Canada against the veteran Scot in search of his first Grand Slam title.
Playing near-perfect tennis, Murray, then No. 4 in the world, blistered a serve off Raonic's backhand to seal the sweep, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2, en route to winning the tournament at Flushing Meadows. "Sorry," Murray told Raonic at the net. "I got lucky a few times." To which Raonic answered, "Don't be sorry, it was simply amazing."
Three months later, Raonic was seated in a small restaurant in Barcelona for an interview during a lunch break from off-season training. His goal for 2013, he said, is to play his way into the year-end ATP World Tour Final. Yet he knows the measure of players is taken in the Grand Slams, and while Raonic doesn't dwell on the thrashing by Murray, the match demonstrated the gulf between his mental and physical capacity versus that of the elite four in tennis – Murray, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. They've won 33 of the last 36 Grand Slam tournaments since 2004, while in eight majors Raonic has yet to get beyond the fourth round.
So to raise his game, he broke it down during off-season training in Barcelona, with the aim of building it to a level beyond his leave-off point in 2012. He enters the Australian Open this weekend as the No. 14 seed, though he's lost three singles matches in tuneup events.
"The goal is to get fitter, stronger, especially in my upper body," Raonic said in the Barcelona interview. "And I want to improve movement and positioning in the court, getting lower so I can be more agile. I want my off-season to be shorter next year. That means I want to be playing in the season-ending tournament in London. Only the top eight players get in, and I want to be there."
In his first two years on Tour, he's ascended from No. 156 to No. 13 by the end of 2012. With three tournament titles, $1.9-million in prize money and a punishing serve, he is earning respect on tour. Players greet him differently in locker rooms now, tournament organizers shower him with attention, and the hotel rooms are getting nicer. But slogging up the rankings from this point will be more daunting, and he's not the only young rising star banging on the door.
His coach, former Spanish ex-pro Galo Blanco, said that he hadn't played poorly versus Murray, but that his tactics were wrong, that he should have dictated with his monster serve. Raonic had tried various positional strategies on the court that day – playing back, playing high, coming into the net often – but nothing worked. Murray picked him apart, slugging remarkable winners and exposing the Canadian's shortcomings, as the elite players will do in the majors.
Raonic's close-knit team includes the three Spanish men he trusts with his athletic progress: Blanco, physical trainer Toni Estalella and physiotherapist Juan Ozón, who is with him from morning to night every day, doing upward of two to three hours of treatments and overseeing his food and vitamins. The program is customized to the different workloads and court surfaces Raonic faces in a year. All three men have worked with top Spanish players and have connections to first-rate facilities and hitting partners.
On a brisk Barcelona morning in early December, Raonic was chasing down balls on hard-court nestled among cobblestone paths and lush greenery.
"Don't run around your backhand," Blanco yelled.
Raonic took turns pounding big shots down the lines with two Wilson racquets, identical models, but strung two different ways. Blanco got behind each Raonic shot with his own racquet and analyzed the feel. They discussed the benefits of each as they tested them, trying to determine which racquet provided a heavier, more difficult ball for his opponents to return while also being most comfortable for Raonic to hit. Every detail counts.
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.
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.
The two negotiated the rules and the punishment that the drill's loser should suffer. They worked on expert placement, managed points strategically and argued vehemently over whether balls dusted the sideline or drifted out. They accused one another of cheating, screamed and cheered triumphantly, and jibed one another like ultracompetitive pros and a pair of old buddies at the same time. Both sweating and arguing the score to the bitter end of the drill, they agreed to do the punishment together: pushups. The drill was aimed at helping Raonic confidently control opponents with his volleys.
"Of course he still blows up to me sometimes, but I like this, because in Spain we say, if you have milk in your veins instead of blood, you're not going to be a champion," Blanco said. "Last season was really his first entire year non-stop on Tour with no injuries, and he got really tired. So in 2013, if he gets burned out in September – so tired he thinks he can't play any more – he'll know how to deal with it. Those top guys are not 22, but Milos is. It comes with experience."
Estalella designed a heavy off-court training schedule that had Raonic doing 36 physical sessions against just six days of rest over the five weeks. Some 60 per cent of the work was focused on building his strength, including his 15 different weight-training sessions (two more than last year).
They spent 23 per cent of the time on resistance training, 11 per cent on speed and agility and 6 per cent on preventing injuries, particularly preserving the shoulders, back and hips involved in that lethal serve so integral to his success. With a thick elastic resistance band fastened around his ankles, Raonic often laid on his side and pulsed the legs open and closed to work the hips, especially the one he had surgically repaired after a gruesome-looking fall on the grass at Wimbledon in 2011.
Many of his days included various types of running – some sprint training, some building extra aerobic capacity for work on clay, some long jogs with Ozón, who dabbles in competitive trail marathons, so the pace was swift.
They spent a lot of time on an indoor track at a national training centre for high-performance Spanish athletes. Estalella leafed through an impressive binder that holds every detail of the plans to strengthen Raonic's body – long-term schedules, goals, exercise diagrams, and stats charting his progress.
"See their foot speed?" Estalella said, pointing to some Spanish track and field athletes sprinting in adjacent lanes. "Fast, like a cat. I want that for Milos."
"The workouts got harder each week, but the physical tolerance improves and I feel myself getting quicker," Raonic said. "The guys around me are not just thinking about me 9-to-5 – they care. When you have that kind of belief and feeling about the people around you, you don't doubt the work, even when it's exhausting and you sometimes don't feel like doing it. I believe they are the guys who can help me become the best."