01/26/2012 04:57 EST | Updated 03/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Rising Canadian tennis star Milos Raonic says building confidence part of game

Canadian Milos Raonic will be in unchartered waters next month when he returns to the SAP Open.

When Raonic steps on to the court in San Jose, Calif., he will do so as the defending champion. The hard-serving player from Thornhill, Ont., became the first Canadian to capture an ATP Tour event since '95 when he beat Spain's Fernando Verdasco in last year's final.

Raonic says building confidence is an important part of his development as he prepares to make his return to the tournament.

"For me, the work ethic is never an issue, especially during training weeks," he said during a conference call Thursday. "I'm always able to improve, hopefully, my tennis and my technical aspects."

There's nothing wrong with his service game as the six-foot-five Raonic is ranked second overall in first-service points. But Raonic realizes he must improve his ability to return serves.

And, he added, building confidence and improving the mental aspect of his game is something that's hard to do in practice.

"The chances you have to improve on it the most come through match experience,'' he said.

Trouble is, last year was Raonic's first full campaign on the pro tour.

"I know it's something that's going to get better with time and I'm hoping sooner rather than later,'' he said.

Raonic has rocketed up the ATP rankings the past year, moving from No. 152 to No. 25, thanks in part to having two major victories under his belt — the SAP Open as well as the Chennai Open earlier this month, where he beat ninth-ranked Janko Tipsarevic.

What's more, Raonic's meteoric rise has come despite missing more than two months with a hip injury suffered at Wimbledon.

Raonic lost to Australian Lleyton Hewitt in third-round action at the Australian Open on Saturday, admitting he was a little nervous facing the veteran. It's an edge, Raonic says, top-ranked players have over those who are working their way up the tennis ladder.

"They have a mental edge over everybody,'' he said.

Hewitt is currently ranked No. 181 by the ATP but a decade ago was the world's top player.

"They believe a lot in themselves," said Raonic.

That's something Raonic hopes to develop and says he's feeling pretty good about returning to the SAP Open as the man to beat.

"I look forward to it," he said. "I have that excitement for that event because I did play well. I don't feel . . . the pressure of coming in there like a defending champion."

Raonic will be competing for Canada in its Davis Cup tie with France next month in Vancouver. He's also hoping to don the Maple Leaf at the London Olympics, something that seems a lock unless he plummets drastically in the rankings.

Olympic berths are decided by ranking and right now Canada's only contenders are Raonic in singles and Toronto's Daniel Nestor in doubles. Nestor, who won gold with Sebastien Lareau at the 2000 Olympics, is currently tied at No. 3 in the ATP doubles rankings.

Raonic is part of a rising young cadre of players like Ryan Harrison and Grigor Dmitrov who are making their presence felt in the pro game. Raonic is the poster boy for the group after being named the ATP's top rookie last season.

"I think there's a lot of potential in the group," Raonic said, describing how the success of one player helps others. "Guys can feed off each other. . . I think it's going to help the sport and for us it's also very exciting being on the tour."