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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Milos Raonic

"Definitely, you will see Milos very often far in the Slam," said Gael Monfils.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

Milos Raonic has been a man in motion in Melbourne.

Before speeding past one of the game's fastest acrobats, Gael Monfils, and accelerating into his first Australian Open semifinal, Raonic was reflecting on pedal power as a stimulating source of inspiration.

Video: Match-Fixing at Oz Open?

Raonic and girlfriend Danielle Knudson visited the National Gallery of Victoria to view artist Ai Weiwei's Forever Bicycles installation.

It has been a transformative trip through the Melbourne draw for Raonic, who has been reflective off court and proactive on court.

While Raonic's game lacks the defensive dazzle of Novak Djokovic, the artistic flair of Roger Federer and the improvisational brilliance of Andy Murray, Milos brings much more than a massive serve to the Grand Slam party.

The first Canadian man to advance to the Australian Open semifinals isn't the first, second or third choice to rule Oz this year.

Reviewing Raonic's 0-5 career record versus Djokovic, which includes a straight-sets loss in the 2015 quarterfinals, and the fact he lost 11 of his last 13 meetings with Top 10 opponents in 2015, may not make you believe in the sleeve as a major contender.

But a declarative serve and attacking style solidifies his status as a man on the verge of a major breakthrough. Raonic is more nimble around net and improved movement means sounder shot selection. Raonic ran rip the running forehand or play the backhand deep down the middle to recover when stretched on that side.

Raonic has played dynamic all-court tennis in bursting out to a 9-0 record this season, including powering past Federer to win his eighth career title in Brisbane earlier this month.

Here are five reasons why Raonic, if healthy, will break through as the next man to win his first major.

1. Fatal First Strike
The Canadian's rocket-launcher serve is so volatile it's basically a blur. Raonic's serve is one of the biggest in the sport— his 145 mph blast is second-fasted of the tournament— but he's developed his all-court game and is no longer a one-dimensional serve-bot. He can terminate points with his sledgehammer forehand and has refined both his footwork and feel around net. Raonic's power allows him to play points on his terms and unsettle the opposition in the process.

2. Return Accuracy
In an injury-marred 2015, Raonic finished 47th on the ATP Tour in return games won (33 percent). This season, he's cutting off the angles better, varying his return location and has improved his backhand return. Raonic has broken serve 18 times through the quarterfinals and has played just two tie break sets in five victories.

"I think he's returning much better," Monfils said after his first career loss to Raonic in the quarterfinals. "He's playing a bit faster from the baseline. I think the main improvement is his return. His return are way better than before."

3. Bolstered Backhand
Movement and his backhand were once the most glaring areas of vulnerability in Raonic's game. He's addressed both areas on the practice court, thumping his backhand with more confidence and playing that shot with more variety. Improved footwork means the 6-foot-5 Canadian has better balance when setting up for his shot. Raonic can drive his two-hander down the line when in position, a shot that wasn't part of his game in his younger years, and he's more astute changing the depth and pace of his slice backhand, particularly when approaching behind that shot.

"He strikes the ball heavy with forehand, but I would say now his backhand (is) getting much better," Monfils said. "So he's a tougher player now."

4. Tactical Tutors
It's one thing having the tools to contend for Grand Slams, but winning majors demands knowing how and when to deploy those weapons. Raonic has worked with respected Italian veteran coach Riccardo Piatti for years. When former No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic departed and subsequently signed on as Federer's coach, Raonic turned to former No. 1 Carlos Moya as his co-coach. All three of those coaches know the competition thoroughly; Raonic believes Moya, who mentored the young Rafael Nadal and faced many of his current rivals, can provide valuable tactical insight.

"(Moya) has played a lot of these guys, especially the ones you'll play in the latter stages of tournaments," Raonic said. "Just going to give me that peace of mind, efficiency, and maybe process of work throughout tournaments. I think that's what I'm looking to gain from him the most."

5. Imposing Identity
Defining a game style can be a challenge for young players. Raonic isn't suffering from any identity crisis. He's  a big guy, who plays a big game with a clear objective: take charge from the first shot. One of the most talented players of Raonic's generation, former Wimbledon semifinalist Grigor Dimitrov, is a shot-making virtuoso who has the skills and athleticism to play all-court tennis, but hasn't established a distinct playing style. Dimitrov has more athletic ability, but Raonic has clarity on court.

Raonic is aiming for efficiency, he already plays with expediency. "Milos is a big server and tries to play short points," said four-time finalist Murray ahead of his semifinal with Raonic.


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