LONDON (REUTERS) - If proof were needed that Milos Raonic deserves his place in the ATP World Tour Finals one only needs to rewind to last week in Paris, when the Canadian finally got the better of Roger Federer.
Drawn to face Federer in the quarter-finals, the 23-year-old knew a seventh successive defeat against the Swiss great would almost certainly have scuppered his chances of qualifying for the elite season-ender for the first time.
Undaunted, he produced one of the best matches of his career to win 7-6 (7-5), 7-5 and followed that up with victory over Tomas Berdych to reach the final, where he lost to Novak Djokovic.
Not long ago, Raonic often struggled to assert himself against the top guns, but not any more.
"It's great the things I was able to produce in Paris when my back was up against the wall," the Montenegro-born giant, who reached his first grand slam semi-final at Wimbledon this year, told reporters at London's O2 Arena.
"Knowing that I was behind in the points (race) and I had to fight my way through to make it possible. I'm happy with that."
Three years after Raonic was voted ATP newcomer of the year, he now stands at No. 8 in the world rankings and is part of a small battalion of players expected to be challenging the established "big four" for majors in the next couple of years.
While still packing plenty of heavy artillery in his game, notably on serve, Raonic has begun to add better defence and swifter movement to his repertoire.
However, he said that it was between the ears where the biggest improvement had come.
"I think the understanding of what I need to do in specific situations, I think I have a much clearer vision of how to go about things now," Raonic, the first Canadian to qualify for the tournament, said. "But just because you have the vision you still have to execute and I've been able to do that."
Raonic could not have picked a tougher opener in London, with six-time former champion Federer waiting to exact revenge for that Paris beating on Sunday.
He then will face Andy Murray and Japan's Kei Nishikori. "I think the only thing that is quite different is that the other three times we played this year we had already played quite a few matches already," he said.
"This is going to be a new challenge as he's been here many times but I will have to find my game straight away."
While much has been made of three debutants qualifying for London and the fact that two of this year's grand slam titles went to first-time winners in Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, Raonic said the likes of Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal (who is absent from London owing to recovery from injury) were still ahead of the pack.
"The one thing you see from the top three guys is that they are always re-inventing themselves because they know they won't stay at the top doing the same old thing," he said. "They know there are too many guys hungry to improve."