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Canada's Raonic strives to join tennis elite

Canada's Milos Raonic plays a shot against Mardy Fish of the United States during their match at the Kooyong Classic tennis tournament in Melbourne January 11, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Tim Wimborne/Reuters

At the end of the 2011 tennis season, Milos Raonic opened an envelope that he and his coach, Galo Blanco, had sealed a year earlier, and its contents made Blanco the satisfied winner of a friendly bet.

The envelope held preseason predictions made by the Canadian player and Blanco, a former pro from Spain. Raonic had guessed he would finish 2011 ranked 47th in the world, a huge leap from 156th, where he finished 2010. Blanco projected an even more confident 31st for his pupil, and the coach nailed it.

Raonic happily treated his coaches, trainers and family members to dinner at a Barcelona restaurant chosen by Blanco. They celebrated the whirlwind season of career firsts that broke new ground for a Canadian singles player on the ATP circuit. But a hip injury at Wimbledon curbed his full potential in 2011. Raonic has since recovered from surgery and hungers to raise that bar dramatically again in 2012, this time joining the elite.

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"People should know how badly he wants it and how he has worked to get back," Blanco said by telephone this week from Melbourne, where the Australian Open begins on Monday. "The more important thing this year is his mentality. He needs to grow as a player and know what he wants, and once he's able to do that, he's going to be a really top player."

Raonic had the surgery on July 5 and spent the summer rehabbing, spending long days with physiotherapist Juan Ozoh, much of it in pools and gyms in Toronto strengthening the hip. Raonic eased into short hitting sessions by late July, and Blanco joined him in Canada in August. The coach was shocked the first day he and Raonic hit together.

"I thought we would be able to hit for 15 to 20 minutes," Blanco recalled. "He was so impressive, so comfortable, we hit for 50 minutes."

At first Blanco believed he wouldn't see Raonic back on the Tour until November last year. But the native of Thornhill, Ont., played in the Davis Cup tie in Israel in September. He then played five more hard-court tournaments in the fall, losing a three-set semi-final to world No. 10 Gael Monfils at the Stockholm Open in October.

"You hear things from people about rehabbing, but you never know how it will go for you, and I was fortunate that I never had setbacks," said the 6-foot-5, 198-pound Raonic. "I came back quickly and at a high level. I thought it would take longer, and I was proud."

Raonic is seeded 23rd at the Australian Open and will first meet Filippo Volandri of Italy. The Canadian faces potential matchups with 15th seed Andy Roddick in the third round and top seed Novak Djokovic in the round of 16.

Raonic kicked off 2011 with a surprising run to the fourth round at the Australian Open, and his serve quickly gained a reputation as one of the Tour's most punishing. Just weeks later, he won his first ATP title, in San Jose, Calif. He added a second title last weekend in Chennai, India, where he was not broken once and he delivered 76 aces in four matches. Not since Roger Federer in 2008 has a player won a tournament without dropping serve.

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Raonic and Blanco attribute the success to the off-season work in Barcelona. Last winter, they raised his skill level by filling his schedule with practice sessions against top-tier Spanish players like David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco, Feliciano Lopez and Nicolas Almagro. This past off-season, Raonic hit more with Blanco and ATP player Tommy Robredo, working to improve details in his game and strengthen his mind on the court.

"It was amazing the way he worked, and I'm really proud of that," Blanco said. "That means he wants to get to the top, and there's only one way to do that."

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Based in Toronto, Rachel Brady writes on a number of sports for The Globe and Mail, including football, tennis and women's hockey. More

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