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Raonic leads way for Canadian contingent

Big server has high hopes for Oz Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia -- If you distilled Milos Raonic's mindset going into last year's Australian Open down to one word, it likely would have been "hopeful."

A lowly qualifier ranked No. 156, the Canadian got through to the fourth round and launched a rookie season in which he was voted the ATP Tour newcomer of the year. In only 12 months, "hopeful" has turned to "confident" as the 21-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., prepares to follow up.

"I'm confident in what I can do. It's a Grand Slam, and it's tough against everyone -- not only tennis-wise, but also psychologically. It's a big step up," Raonic said Sunday. "I think I started the year well. Getting through that match in the final (in Chennai, India, where he won his second career ATP Tour title), I already have that belief in myself starting the year, knowing all that work already is paying off quickly."

Raonic is one of four Canadian players in the singles portion at the first Grand Slam tournament of the season, which begins today.

Daniel Nestor of Toronto and partner Max Mirnyi of Belarus are the No. 2 seeds in the doubles draw, which also includes Adil Shamasdin of Pickering, Ont., and partner Philipp Marx of Germany.

The Canadian singles players won't see their first action until Tuesday. And as the draws shook out, all four escaped potential mine fields.

Raonic will play Filippo Volandri of Italy, a 30-year-old ranked No. 72 on the ATP Tour.

On the women's side, it's also a new start for Aleksandra Wozniak of Blainville, Que., Stephanie Dubois of Laval, Que., and Vancouver's Rebecca Marino.

And, in the case of the first two, it's already a better start than it was in 2011. Wozniak missed last year's Australian Open during her prolonged absence because of a forearm injury. But after having to qualify for the other three majors last season, the 24-year-old was admitted straight into the draw in Melbourne and plays Shuai Zhang of China.

Dubois missed the last two months of last season with a stress fracture in her foot and also had to play the qualifying in Grand Slams in 2011. But she's now ranked in the top 100 and will play Elena Vesnina of Russia.

For Marino, the biggest change is in who's around her. The 21-year-old is Down Under with a new coach and fitness trainer Lisa Northrup, who came on board during the second half of 2011 and will be travelling with her most of the season. Cristian Kordasz, an Argentine who coached Wozniak during her run to the WTA Tour's top 25 back in 2008, worked with Marino for three or four weeks at home in Vancouver during the off-season.

Already, there are changes.

Marino showed off a revamped service motion during her practice sessions Sunday that includes a slight rocking motion at its start, somewhat reminiscent of Raonic's setup.

"(Kordasz) wanted a little more momentum on the motion," Marino said. "It's still relatively new, but I don't think there's any going back on it now. I'm committed to it and I haven't seemed to be falling back on my old habits."

For Raonic, the change in fortunes has been dramatic. As a seeded player this year (he's No. 23), he hasn't had to worry about going to practice off-site while the qualifying tournament took up most of the courts at Melbourne Park last week. He's getting better court assignments and stronger players to practice with.

On Sunday, Raonic's practice session with defending champion and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic took place in Rod Laver Arena, on the tournament's Centre Court.

The uptick in maturity in a year has been noticeable not only in the way Raonic carries himself, but how he's thinking and what he's saying. As he continues to work with Spanish coach Galo Blanco, Raonic continues to make strides in his approach.

"I think one thing I think I've been doing well this year is that I haven't been worried about the results in practice, I've been more focused on working on things," he said. "Really, I don't think I've been winning too many sets in practice at all. But it's not as much of a worry because I know a few things are getting better."

Most of Raonic's off-season work was on his serve return game. As time permits between tournaments this year, he and Blanco will do more work on his transition game, getting to the net on the strength of the opportunities created by his monster serve and powerful forehand.

"I was a bit more resistant to listening. Now, 99 per cent of the time there really isn't an issue," Raonic said. "When I'm told something I try to do it."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2012 C10

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