After an injury-plagued, up-and-down season in 2015, Milos Raonic is off to a solid start in 2016, wrapping up the Brisbane International title on Sunday by beating 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4.
The victory puts the 25-year-old Canadian back on the “outside contender” radar heading into the year’s first major, the Australian Open, which kicks off next week in Melbourne. He’ll enter as the No. 13 seed, but the draws haven’t been decided, so as of right now, there is no way to know who Raonic may encounter in the latter stages of the tournament. He advanced to the quarters in Melbourne last year, losing to eventual champion and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in straight sets, before missing the French Open with an injury and getting bounced in the third at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Raonic never looked right after returning from his foot injury, but showed no signs of lingering issues with his wheels against Federer.
Of course, he did need an injury timeout in the second set to get treatment on his leg, but with a week off before the Australian Open kicks off, Raonic should be at full strength.
2015 felt like it could be a breakthrough campaign for the Canadian as he advanced to the quarters at the French and the semis in England, but the injuries and inconsistency that followed his return limited his results. Still, the talent is there and the win over Federer could be a sign that Raonic is ready to take his game to the next level.
Remember, it took Djokovic went through three years of majors without winning a title before picking up his first, the 2008 Australian Open. Even after getting his first, “Joker” went another two years without a win, only reaching one final, before winning three of four in 2011 and picking up at least one Grand Slam victory each year since.
Over the last four years, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have dominated in majors, winning 10 of 16 tournaments, with Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka winning two each. But Nadal took a noticeable step back last season, failing to win a Grand Slam event for the first time since 2004 and Federer has just a lone major championship since winning the Australian Open in 2010, his 2012 victory at Wimbledon. So it feels like there is an opportunity for one of the younger talents on the men’s side of the draw to push for a regular place amongst the elite and it’s likely to come down to No. 5 Kei Nishikori, Raonic, who currently sits at No. 8 in the ATP Tour Rankings, 2014 U.S. Open winner Marin Cilic, who sits at No. 9 and No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov. All four have shown flashes, but none have shown the consistency to go toe-to-toe with the big boys.
With his power serve and bolstered by his win over Federer, why can’t Raonic be that guy? His game is best suited to the hard courts (and Wimbledon if he opted to play a throwback, Pete Sampras, serve-and-volley style for a fortnight) and he’s just coming into his athletic prime.
If he can fend off the double faults and play crisp tennis for two weeks, this could be the point where Raonic makes the leap and becomes the consistent championship contender we’ve been hoping he’ll become for the last couple years.