PARIS – Milos Raonic is a much different player than the one who lost in the third round of the French Open one year ago.
"Not only am I a better player purely all-around, but also on clay," said Raonic, who is seeded eighth, his highest ever ranking at a Grand Slam event. "Last year, coming in, there was a lot of doubts in my mind, struggling with a coaching change [an emotional split with Galo Blanco] and everything and I just wasn't playing my best tennis leading into it or at the event whereas now I'm playing some of my best tennis, definitely my best tennis on clay and I feel like I'm getting better each week on the clay."
Just last week, Raonic came within a few points of knocking off Novak Djokovic at the Masters 1000 event in Rome, ultimately falling 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 3-6. After the match, the world's second-ranked player said he could not remember the last time he felt so "helpless" in the return game.
"That's what I want every single one of my opponents to feel," Raonic said. "I know that when I can make them have a lot of doubts and a lot of insecurities on my service games, my return games get easier, because they feel the pressure that they need these games and it's about imposing myself and I felt that in that match, I was able to impose myself."
Raonic has won 80 pre cent of his first-serve points on clay this season to lead the ATP Tour. That's up from the 76 per cent last season.
"I think it's the serve, but also the confidence I have behind the serve when the ball comes back," Raonic explained. "I think I'm structuring points better. A lot of the time when people look at serve stats, they think that it's just the serve and nothing happens after that, but it's how you back it up and I think it creates more pressure on my opponents that when they do get my serve back, it's not just about getting it back, they have to do something with it to at least neutralize [the point], because if I start the point ahead, I can finish it off."
Raonic is a much more complete player than the one who burst onto the scene three years ago at the Australian Open advancing all the way to the fourth round. That remains the furthest he has progressed at a major (he's reached that stage four times, including twice at the US Open and once more at the Australian Open in 2013). It also matches the furthest any Canadian man has ever advanced in the singles competition at a Grand Slam event.
But all signs point to that changing soon as the big server from Thornhill, Ont. seeks to break down yet another Canadian tennis barrier. He beat Andy Murray, seeded seventh at Roland Garros, earlier this season at Indian Wells. He pushed Rafael Nadal, the top seed in Paris, to three sets at a hard-court event in Miami this season. So as he enters the year's second Grand Slam, his confidence level against the game's elite is very healthy.
"It's quite high actually," the 23-year-old said in a matter-of-fact tone. "I feel like every time I'm getting better when I put myself in those situations. It's a big focus for me: do well in early rounds so you can face those top guys, because each time you do, you'll get more experience."
Raonic could get another shot at Djokovic if the draw holds to form and both make it to the quarterfinals, although the road there for the Canadian is littered with tricky propositions. He'll open the tournament on Sunday against Australian wildcard Nicholas Kyrgios. He is ranked 161st right now, but turned heads in Melbourne at the season's first major by upsetting Benjamin Becker in the first round before falling to Benoit Paire, a top-30 player, in five sets in the second round. The 19-year-old Kyrgios is viewed as a player on the rise.
"I followed him a lot, especially in the Australian Open," said Raonic. "He was having some exciting matches. He played really well. He likes to play aggressive. He likes to sort of use the ambiance around him and he's got a big personality in that sense. For me, it really comes down to taking care of what I need to take care of. I've got to take care of my serve. I've got to go out there, it's the first match, with the attitude. The approach on the mental side is going to be very important and I must make sure I stay with patience. It doesn't matter if moments get difficult, because it's still three out of five, just let my game flow and let my game follow."
In the second round, Raonic could face 53rd-ranked Czech Lukas Rosol and in the third round, Gilles Simon could be waiting and it's certain the Frenchman would have the home fans on his side. Then, should Raonic get to the round of 16, a showdown with ninth-seed Kei Nishikori looms. The Japanese star is 2-0 against Raonic and just beat him in Madrid (straight sets, but both went to a tiebreak).
A Canadian man has never made the fourth round at Roland Garros so history seems to be within reach for Raonic, who made it clear he must do better than last year's third-round finish if this tournament is to be considered a success for him.
And should Raonic make more history at Roland Garros by making the quarterfinals, well, that would be an important milestone, but the rising star is hardly fixated on that benchmark.
"It would mean a lot in that moment," he said, "but I don't think it would be very significant at the same time, because my ambitions don't lie in just making the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam."