Hard-serving Milos Raonic leads Canadian tennis charge after strong 2012 season

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press
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TORONTO - The strong play of rising tennis star Milos Raonic has created a sense of optimism that the Canadian may soon crack the sport's highest tier in the men's singles game.

He has also helped instill a sense of confidence that can be felt across the national program.

Raonic built on his strong 2011 season this past year with two more ATP tournament victories. He has risen to No. 13 in the world rankings and is one of the top young stars on the circuit.

Tennis Canada president Michael Downey said Raonic's impressive play has also given a boost to young Canadian players like Grand Slam junior champions Filip Peliwo and Eugenie Bouchard.

"I think they look and they go, 'Why can't I do it?,' Downey said in a recent interview. "And both of them actually said that after they won Wimbledon.

"They said Milos gives them a new sense of confidence that they might not have had before on that end."

Peliwo reached the junior final at all four Grand Slams, winning at the All England Club and the U.S. Open. The 18-year-old from Vancouver rose to No. 1 on the ITF junior world rankings list last July — the first Canadian to do so — and will end the year in top spot.

Like Raonic and Peliwo, Bouchard also came up through the national training centre in Montreal. The 18-year-old from Westmount, Que., became the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title when she took the 2012 girls' trophy at Wimbledon. She added the girls' doubles title a day later.

"I think the system is better than we've ever had and they're getting great coaching," Downey said. "But when you get to that level, a lot of it is a belief that you belong and you can win."

Fifth-ranked doubles player Daniel Nestor of Toronto enjoyed another stellar campaign. He won five men's doubles titles on the year to push his career total to 80.

One of his victories came at the 2012 French Open, when he took the title with Max Mirnyi of Belarus. Their two-year run as partners will end in 2013 when Nestor will start playing with India's Mahesh Bhupathi.

While Bouchard provided some highlight moments at the junior level, WTA veteran Aleksandra Wozniak of Blainville, Que., returned to form after some injury-plagued seasons.

Wozniak did not win a title this season but made a big jump to No. 43 in the women's singles rankings, a significantly higher position than any other Canadian.

Raonic, who won tournaments at Chennai and San Jose this year, had several big moments in 2012.

The Thornhill, Ont., player posted victories over Olympic champ Andy Murray of Britain and guided Canada to victory over South Africa in Davis Cup competition. Raonic also came achingly close to beating Roger Federer — falling in third-set tiebreakers on two occasions — and had a memorable marathon match with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France at the London Games.

Raonic said the Federer match in Madrid last May — a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4) win for the Swiss star —really stands out when he looks back at the year.

"Just in the sense that it gave me a lot motivation, a lot of belief, a lot of sense of what I need to do," Raonic said in a recent interview. "And it's a lot easier to learn from losing than it is from winning.

"It was a hard one to lose but I felt like I took the most away from that one."

Raonic's booming serve is a huge weapon and his overall skill-set continues to blossom. He still makes unforced errors at critical times but he's using a more aggressive style to dictate the style of play.

"He's finding his range now," said Canadian Davis Cup team coach Martin Laurendeau. "He's putting more tactics behind his play other than cranking his serve.

"So he's following up with some big forehands, he's also combining really well with the returns, followed with big forehands — especially his inside-out forehand — I think it's probably his best weapon besides the serve."

Age is also in Raonic's corner.

He turns 22 this month and has already soaked up precious experience on the biggest stages against top-flight opposition.

"He's only going to get better," Laurendeau said. "You can't really fast-track ahead of the clock. Everyone has got a clock and the men's game is such now that you're getting into your best years between 25 and 30. So time is really a big factor here ... given the proper amount of time, he'll figure it out."

Raonic will lead Canada against powerhouse Spain in a Davis Cup World Group first-round tie Feb. 1-3 in Vancouver. Nestor and world No. 125 Vasek Pospisil of Vancouver round out the team's core.

That competition might just take the Raonic buzz to new heights.

"He's got the confidence but he's not cocky, he knows he has to work really hard and we just have high aspirations for him," Downey said. "But it's going to get tougher because at the end of the day, he's more targeted. People are prepping more for Milos.

"But we clearly believe he's more than capable of being a top-10 player."