Anthony Lopopolo, Contributor
There is something about the start of a new season on the ATP circuit that pushes Milos Raonic to play break-out tennis. Last year, his jaunt up the rankings from 152nd to 25th in the world began at the Australian Open, where he became the first qualifier to reach the fourth round since 1999 and first made a name for himself. This year, he could be propelling his career to new heights.
After beating Janko Tipsarevic (world ranking 9th) and winning the Chennai Open in India last week, the 21-year-old will be seeded at No. 23 this time for the Australian Open — an indication of just how far the young Canadian has come. “I’m not really getting ahead of myself,” Raonic told the Toronto Sun. “I know the things I need to do and I know that I’m just going to keep getting better and better with more matches, so I’m really just going after it as if it’s sort of my first time here.” In a perhaps superstitious attempt to repeat last year’s success in Australia, he will be staying on the same floor of the same hotel as he did a year ago. He also plans on eating at the same restaurants as well.
Last year Raonic had to beat German Bjorn Phau, long-time French circuit player Michael Llodra and top-10 player Russian Mikhail Youzhny in 2011. As a seeded player he could possibly face an easier string of opponents, but the fact is that even with two titles now to his name and a season’s worth of experience, Raonic has not cleared the second round of a Grand Slam event since Australia 12 months ago. His game has been a work in process despite the newfound fame and expectations — especially after his hip surgery last year.
Raonic lost to Mardy Fish in the first round of the Kooyong Classic Invitational on January 11, citing stomach pain. And while Raonic will try to replicate the success he had at the Open, he is no longer an unknown player; opponents know his methodology and can prepare to counter his game plan. This is not in any way going to be a carbon copy of last year’s flourishing run.
He maintains some advantages, though. Starting where he left off in 2011, when he struck 637 aces (the fifth-highest total) on all surfaces, Raonic leads the tour in aces at the beginning of the season. “My serve is a big factor in my game — in 99 percent of my matches,” Raonic told atpworldtour.com. “My job is to take care of [it].”
Already with $72,945 in earnings this year, he certainly looks ready to make another deep run in Australia. If anyone on tour knows how to start a season well, it’s Raonic.