After a tough 2015, and some back woes early in the off-season, Canadian tennis star Milos Raonic couldn't have asked for better preparation heading into the first Grand Slam tournament of the season at the Australian Open.
The 25-year-old defeated Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4 in the Brisbane final – a rematch of last year's final – continuing the aggressive forward-minded tennis that he has displayed so far, in the first weeks of 2016.
"Congratulations Milos on a great start to the year. You played great already last year, I thought; the final was epic on many levels last year, also for me, and now this year you got it. You deserve it. Well played," Federer said.
Federer had battled the flu early in the week, an understandable by-product of traveling with four young children, and he may not have been at his very best. Certainly he still sounded congested Sunday and at times, was breathing heavily.
There were a few cries of anger, fairly rare from Federer, and some rueful smiles as he missed some makeable passing shots at key moments.
But Raonic also gave him little breathing room. His plan was clear from the start; to hit every forehand as hard as he could, risking a few additional unforced errors, and to move forward whenever he could. Raonic was 20-for-25 at the net and although he had fewer aces than Federer, his 53 per cent success rate on his own second serve against one of the finest returners in the game was a fairly telling stat.
"Against him it's always about who can dictate. I felt that other than maybe one service game where I double-faulted three times, I was staying quite a bit ahead on my serve and always close on his, except for one that I lost at love. I felt like most of the other ones I was getting to 30. I was giving myself opportunities and then was able to capitalise twice," Raonic told the media in Brisbane.
Federer earned just one break point in the entire one-hour, 27-minute match, as Raonic defeated him for just the second time in 11 attempts. It was the first match between the two since Raonic's former coach Ivan Ljubicic went over to Camp Federer during the offseason.
"It feels great considering how the past nine months have been. It adds a sort of cherry on top to all that. It does great things. For myself it signifies within the team how concrete and good the work we're doing is.," Raonic said. "At the same time, with the difficulties I've had last year, it's maybe a good way for me to show the other guys I will face going in Melbourne that I've got my stuff back together and I can play some good tennis again."
The victory didn't do anything for Raonic's ranking; the Brisbane International is a 250-level event, the lowest tier on the ATP Tour despite the presence of Federer, and the incremental increase in ranking points over his finals effort a year ago couldn't move him past Marin Cilic, who sits a few hundred points ahead of him.
So Raonic will head into the Australian Open ranked No. 14, which means he would be slotted to face one of the top four – Novak Djokovic, Federer, Andy Murray or Stan Wawrinka – in the fourth round.
Given he has already defeated Federer and Wawrinka (in an exhibition special event in Abu Dhabi the previous week) already in 2016, and has done very well against Murray on outdoor hard courts, he has to be optimistic about his chances at a deep run if he can avoid the seemingly-unbeatable Djokovic at that stage.
One potential worry spot to look out for is a situation with Raonic's adductor, which required an off-court medical timeout early in the second set. It wasn't the first time this season he needed treatment on it, although it hasn't seem to hamper his movement.
It did nearly cost him Sunday, though; when he returned to the court, Raonic double-faulted three times. Still, Federer was unable to break him in that game. "It was a little bit hard to push off just until I got my legs going, and I think that's why [the serves] were sort of floating long on me and the last one came short on me," Raonic said.