Milos Raonic will admit it. He likes to play the tournament at Indian Wells. The surface, the conditions and the way the ball sits up for him, all of that suits his game. The fact that there's a supportive crowd of Canadians in the stands – including, on Wednesday, Wayne Gretzky – doesn't hurt either.
There's a comfort level here, and over the years, some of the more significant moments of Raonic's career have unfolded at the BNP Paribas Open. There was a win over Andy Murray two years ago, another over Rafael Nadal last year. In fact, Raonic has advanced one round further in each of his past four appearances, and if that pattern continues this year, it means he'll make it to the final in 2016.
Raonic took an important step in that direction Wednesday, with a nice straight-sets 6-4, 7-6 (7) victory over sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic. Raonic is the 12th seed and playing for the first time since a torn adductor muscle put him on the sidelines for six weeks following a semi-final loss to Murray in the Australian Open.
Raonic's expectations for the tournament, modest to begin with, should theoretically grow now, after dispatching Berdych in an efficiently played match.
"Would I expect that I was going to play like this after everything that's been going on the last few weeks?" Raonic said in a postmatch interview. "Definitely not. I just sort of tried to compete and get better with each match. I have been fortunate to do so. I give myself now a chance tomorrow with three matches behind me to play even better – and I know I'm going to need to."
Raonic's quarter-final opponent will be Gaël Monfils of France, seeded 13th, in the featured evening match Thursday night. Monfils was a straight-sets winner over unseeded Federico Delbonis of Argentina, who eliminated Murray in the third round.
Raonic is in the bottom half of the draw, where the top four seeds – Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Berdych and Richard Gasquet – have all been eliminated. If he can get past Monfils, then his semi-final opponent will be either David Goffin or Marin Cilic.
After two relatively easy matches to open the tournament, Raonic faced a more reputable opponent in Berdych, the sort of streaky player who, from one match to the next, can be either up or down.
Berdych was a little of both Wednesday, but faltered twice when it mattered most in the tiebreaker, throwing in a double fault at 6-all and then missing an easy overhead on match point that gave Raonic the victory.
Raonic says he doesn't look at draws – only who comes up in his next match – but he is aware that upsets have abounded this week.
"At the end of the day the tennis world is pretty small, especially the top group," he said. "When you're in top 30, there are only 30 guys. You watch each other play quite a bit and you know how guys play and you see how guys are doing, how the conditions are.
"Today it was hot; it was flying a little bit more. I felt that at some points in my match, and also could see that throughout that match at certain parts. You're faced with the exact same conditions of the other guy, and you try to put it together better."
Murray spent most of his news conference earlier this week explaining why Indian Wells doesn't suit his game. The Brit can never find his way here – even after adjusting the string tension on his racquets and cranking it way up, he still kept hitting too many shots way long.
For Raonic, it's just the opposite.
"I've always played well here," he said. "The ball comes up for me. Also, it's a little bit slower, so it allows me to organize my game a little bit better. My serve still goes through and it's effective, and also it gives me a little more looks on the return game and more chances to set up the forehand and control the point like that."
Year over year, Raonic is playing more confidently than in the past, more efficient at the net, covering the angles he's supposed to cover, making the volleys he's supposed to make.
"All these kind of things – I'm just getting myself in there and putting pressure on my opponents, I believe, and hoping that eventually it just sort of pays its dividends."
Considering the length of his layoff, Raonic looked relatively match tough – holding his composure as Berdych's failed him. Raonic is now 4-2 lifetime against Berdych. This was his 20th career win against a top-10 player, including a 3-1 record this season, a year that began well and seems to be getting better all the time.