By Julian Linden
BRISBANE (Reuters) - Milos Raonic unleashed a bombardment of aces on Kei Nishikori on Saturday to reach the final of the Brisbane International, showing why he is lurking as a real contender for this month's Australian Open.
The big-serving Canadian blasted 34 aces past his bewildered Japanese opponent, including one that was timed at 231km/h (143.6 mph), to come from behind and win their semi-final 6-7(4) 7-6(4) 7-6(4).
"We spent a lot of time of practising, there's a lot of cold days in Canada," Raonic told a courtside interviewer when asked the secret to his success.
Raonic will face Roger Federer in Sunday's final of the Australian Open warm-up tournament at the Pat Rafter Arena after the Swiss maestro beat Grigor Dimitrov 6-2 6-2 in the second semi.
Ranked eighth in the world, Raonic is emerging as one of the favourites to win the first grand slam of 2015 after he announced his arrival by reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon last year.
And the 24-year-old has started the new season where he left off, reaching his 14th career ATP final and avenging his loss to Nishikori in last year's Japan Open final.
Raonic brought his heavy artillery to the Pat Rafter Arena, holding each of his 18 service games and committing just three double faults in the two-and-a-half hour clash.
"I felt I served really well. That's held me around, especially in the beginning, because I felt he was getting more and more on top of me at the beginning from the baseline," Raonic said.
"That sort of kept me in it and sort of gave me a chance, and then I was able to create some opportunities in the beginning of the second set.
"After that, it was pretty much straightforward holding from both of us. I felt like with my serve I put a lot of pressure on opponents in tiebreaks, and I was able to use that."
One small error cost him the first set. After the first eight points in the tiebreaker all went with serve, Raonic handed Nishikori a mini-break when he dumped a backhand into the net.
That was all Nishikori, also a rising star of the game, needed to take the opening set in 49 minutes, with the U.S. Open finalist winning the next two points on his own serve, sealed with a backhand winner.
Raonic, serving at an average of almost 30km/h (18 mph) faster than Nishikori, continued his blitz in the second set and the pressure eventually told when Nishikori double-faulted in the tiebreaker, allowing the 25-year-old Canadian to level the match.
The third set also went to a tiebreaker as neither player was able to break each other's serve in a high-quality contest.
Nishikori handed Raonic the advantage when he sprayed a forehand volley wide then the Canadian sealed his win with a devastating return winner.
"It's always hard to play someone like him because there is not much rallies. Today he hits like 30 aces. Not really much I could do," said Nishikori.
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)