MADRID May 23 Milos Raonic would probably not feature on most people's list of potential French Open champions but the two-metre Canadian with the booming serve has been working hard on his clay game in Spain and has the potential to cause an upset.
The Montenegro-born 22-year-old, who will make his third appearance at Roland Garros next week, joined up with Spanish coach Galo Blanco at his 4Slam Tennis academy in Barcelona in November 2010 and believes Blanco's influence has helped him to improve on the red dust.
Currently ranked 16 after rising as high as 13, Raonic said that under Blanco's guidance he had progressed in all aspects of his tennis as he aimed to become the first Canadian to secure a place in the top 10.
"My clay game has improved tremendously and now I play these clay events, including the French Open, with much more confidence and much more expectation of myself," Raonic told Reuters at this month's Madrid Open.
"I'm feeling a lot more confident on clay, so from that sense I enjoy it," he added.
"I understand quite well that if I improve more and more on clay it will help with the rest of my game on other surfaces and that's important to me. I feel I have the confidence to expect more results."
Raonic, who turned professional in 2008 and says Wimbledon is his favourite grand slam, made his Roland Garros debut in 2011 and lost in the first round to Germany's Michael Berrer.
He reached the third round last year before falling to Argentine Juan Monaco.
"2012 was much better," he said. "I came in as a more complete player with a better understanding of what I had to do, with more grand slams as experience but also with more matches as experience on clay courts."
Blanco, 36, was a top-40 player himself and reached the French Open quarter-finals in 1997, where he was beaten by Australian Pat Rafter, and Raonic said he hoped to match or better his coach's feat one day.
"We've joked about it a few times," he said. "It's hard really to put a date stamp on that but hopefully one day, yes."
Asked whether he had chosen to work with Blanco because he specifically wanted to improve on clay, he added: "It was part of it but I think it was more that I wanted to improve in everything, him being a former player, him being able to provide a lot of experience and teach me another type of work ethic.
"Obviously the help he can provide on clay was a side benefit but I also think that he can help me as much as he did on clay on hard courts."
Raonic's clay credentials were given the ultimate test last month when he ran up against Spaniard Rafa Nadal in the last four of the Barcelona Open.
After a fine start against the seven-times French Open champion, when he took a surprise 2-0 lead, his challenge faded badly and he lost 6-4 6-0.
"I have thought about it quite a bit," Raonic told Reuters. "I think I got a break up early and then started playing a bit too much on his terms and you can't really do too well against him in those conditions.
"I would have hoped to play better but I think it's still a tough task to overcome Nadal no matter how well you are playing but you have to keep fighting for that.
"A lot of things (need improving) in my game after that match. I think it just gave me more insight...to force myself to go for it more and play big like I did at the beginning rather than hold back as I did towards the end."
Raonic's clay season took a disappointing turn after Barcelona, as he fell to Fernando Verdasco in the second round in Madrid and was knocked out by Philipp Kohlschreiber in the opening round in Rome.
Nadal, meanwhile, is the overwhelming favourite to secure an eighth French Open title in nine years at the tournament starting on Sunday and Raonic said the Mallorcan was close to his best after coming back from a seven-month injury layoff.
Nadal has won clay titles in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome in recent weeks and was beaten in the final at Monte Carlo by world number one Novak Djokovic.
"I don't think he (Nadal) is too far off," Raonic said. "Some days it's there and some days it's not but that's the same with pretty much everybody.
"I think he's as dominant as he's ever been on clay and I don't think there's really any doubt that he's the player to beat on clay.
"The big favourite for the French Open is Rafa Nadal." (Editing by Clare Fallon)