Raonic credits training in Barcelona for success
Milos Raonic's first appearance at the Barcelona Open on Monday will mark the closest thing to a homecoming outside of his native Canada for one of the rising stars of men's tennis.
Raonic credits his climb up the rankings to a preseason move to the Catalan capital. A seven-week stint here was the lead-in to the Australian Open where the 20-year-old qualifier from Thornhill, Ontario, reached the last 16 in January.
Since Jan. 1, Raonic has jumped 122 spots in the rankings to No. 34.
''I think it was a big decision to make because it is hard to leave home, but it was the right decision,'' Raonic told The Associated Press from Barcelona's Royal Tennis Club during a recent training session.
Raonic's first senior ATP clay event at the Monte Carlo Masters started with victories over Michael Llodra and Ernests Gulbis before sixth-ranked David Ferrer used his experience to overwhelm Raonic 6-1, 6-3 on Thursday.
Now Raonic is eyeing Monday's Barcelona opener with the 15th-seeded wild card facing savvy clay court player Radek Stepanek.
''I was progressing, developing in the right way and the move to Spain helped kick it into the next gear,'' said Raonic, whose Royal Tennis Club training partners include Spanish top-30 players like Nicolas Almagro, Albert Montanes and Tommy Robredo.
Raonic believes this has given him a competitive edge - and being based in Spain, a country riding a wave of tennis success, also helped.
''The athletes are so looked after and so appreciated (here),'' the 1.96-meter (6-foot-5) Raonic said. ''When I was No. 150 people here would come up to you and randomly say, 'I saw you play Rafa (Nadal) last year in Tokyo.' I don't think I'd get that kind of recognition back home. That's also nice and motivating. It's nice to know you're being followed.''
Raonic, who was born in Montenegro before emigrating to Canada as a three-year-old, spends about three hours of a ordinary day on court and another three hours divided between fitness training and physiotherapy. The few remaining hours are spent in his university-style dormitory room in the suburb of Sant Cugat, where he watches movies or chats on Skype with his girlfriend, who is 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) away.
''He works so hard, like nothing I've ever seen,'' said former player Galo Blanco, Raonic's coach. ''While Milos' clay game was incognito, I don't see why he can't win games. It's evident it's not his favored surface but regardless of how he does during the clay court season ... he will come out a better player.''
Getting a grip on his emotions has been Raonic's biggest challenge.
A meeting with boyhood hero Pete Sampras in San Jose - where Raonic's first ATP title was also the first for a Canadian player for 16 years - helped cement that message. Raonic says the 14-time Grand Slam champion told him: ''Champions find a way to win even when they're not playing their best.''
''It's not so much about changing my game but finding what I need to do. It's about changing a mental chip, knowing what to do in the situation,'' said Raonic, whose serve regularly hits 245 kilometers per hour (152 mph). ''I think I can play well on clay but I think I just need time. You can't do it with the snap of the fingers.''
Raonic's first taste of clay saw him win all three of his Davis Cup matches in Mexico to put Canada into a World Group playoff against Ecuador in July. But Blanco says past results won't matter when Raonic comes up against the game's best.
''To beat Nadal is very difficult, practically impossible. But the rest of the players are in the same situation as him - better on hardcourt than clay so we just have to see how he improves,'' Blanco said.
''I don't care about results anyway. The season is long and now he's (No. 34) in the world so things are already going at an incredible pace. He has to remember this is a marathon.''
Raonic, who will play in Estoril, Madrid and Rome before the French Open, is getting ready for star players like Nadal.
''I respect what they've done but I try not to look up to them too much because you put yourself in a mental state when it comes time to play them if you already have them on a pedestal,'' Raonic said. ''The moment you step out on that court it's 0-0 and you have to find a way to win.''