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Canadian Milos Raonic is well-served to keep climbing the ladder in men's tennis

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TORONTO - Milos Raonic's wicked serve is no secret. It "astonished" tennis legend Stefan Edberg a few years ago at the Stockholm Open.

Recorded at a top speed of 249 kilometres an hour, Raonic's serve is the centrepiece of the game that has elevated him to No. 6 in the world.

What should worry opponents of the 23-year-old, who has his sights set on a top-five ranking and Grand Slam titles, is that he isn't finished refining it.

"When I face off against opponents it's something that gives them discomfort, and if that's how people see it, I'm fine with that," Raonic said. "I have put more focus on it, I would say, just getting out there and hitting more serves. I think my numbers on my serve have improved, and as well the way I back up my serve, it's just been more difficult for my opponents."

Raonic, who will face either American Jack Sock in his opening match at the Rogers Cup on Wednesday night, is already a handful for opponents. Most of the time it's because they can't handle his powerful serve.

In 39 matches so far this year, Raonic has won 83 per cent of his first-serve points, second on the ATP Tour behind only Ivo Karlovic. And the Thornhill, Ont., product has also won 91 per cent of games he has served, third behind Karlovic and John Isner.

Part of that isn't just how good Raonic's serve is, but how he's following it up.

"The way I build my game, the first shot after my serve and so forth," he said. "I think my holding numbers are higher and winning on second-serve points and saving break points. I have a better understanding what I need to do."

Raonic's big serve couldn't save him in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon semifinals, when he was broken three times and won just 50 per cent of his second serves. Frustrated in defeat, Raonic still showed something to his opponent with the 17 Grand Slam titles.

"(He's) not going to get really overwhelmed with the situation. Not that he would do that beforehand because I think with that kind of a game, you have a base," Federer said. "It's very simple to focus on what you really need to do with his big serve. Overall I felt like that's where he feels he needs to be and wants to be and I think that aura, having that, is a big factor if you're going to get yourself back into these situations or not."

Instead of embracing the accomplishment of reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal, Raonic — "with a purpose" — sought to get away from tennis.

"I disconnected myself," he said. "I was training in the sort of gym I wouldn't normally use just to sort of be able to focus on myself, use that sort of anger that I sort of built up across what happened at the end of Wimbledon and motivate myself."

Raonic went to Toronto FC's training grounds and worked out around soccer players. He practised his serve for the first pitch at a Blue Jays game and then hit the ball around for a couple of hours at a time at Rexall Centre but also did off-court preparation.

Some of it was mental.

"There was really no tennis players around," Raonic said. "Therefore, I was sort of isolated from everything that might be day-to-day tennis news."

When Raonic returned, he was the one making the news by rolling through the Citi Open in Washington for his sixth career singles title. He beat fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil in Sunday's final, doing so in quick, methodical fashion.

"I think I just played well," Raonic said. "I had break chances in every game and break chances that I had good looks at in all the games. ... I think when I'm playing that way I think I can deal with whoever and whichever situation."

Edberg, now Federer's coach, saw at Wimbledon that Raonic is "a threat to anybody," given the way he's playing lately. Washington also gave Raonic some momentum going into the Rogers Cup.

But Raonic isn't new at this, so he wasn't acting cocky when he arrived in Toronto.

"What I have learned over time, spending on tour, last week means nothing," he said Monday. "This week I start at zero. So I have to find my level of tennis here this week and I have to get through each day that I can."

That starts by facing Sock, who beat Austrian Jurgen Melzer 6-1, 6-3. Raonic beat Sock in straight sets last week at the Citi Open and previously in straight sets at Wimbledon.

"I've played him more than a few times now in the last few years," Sock said. "I feel like we always have pretty good battles, pretty competitive matches."

If Raonic, who reached the final of this event last year in Montreal before losing to Rafael Nadal, enjoys similar success in Toronto as he had in Washington and London, he could have a new career-high world ranking.

"The progress I have made, the development I've been fortunate to go through, The sights pretty much go down now," he said. "It's 5, 4, 3, whatever comes after that. It's about getting better each week and figuring out a way to win matches."

It's almost impossible to crack the top three, considering the stranglehold Novak Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have. But Edberg, who was on top decades ago, sees a bright future for Raonic.

"I think the only thing that can stop things is an injury," Edberg said. "So if he stays injury free, I think he's going to have a good run. He's got a lot of potential."


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