Milos Raonic became the first Canadian to win an ATP Tour title since 1995 by winning a hard-fought match Sunday over defending champion Fernando Verdasco 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5) in the final of the SAP Open.
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The 20-year-old Raonic came through in his first career final, becoming the youngest winner on tour since Marin Cilic won in New Haven in 2008 at age 19. The last Canadian to win on tour was Greg Rusedski, who won in Seoul in April 1995.
In a match that featured two tiebreakers, one break point and no breaks of serves, it was the smallest differences that decided the winner. Verdasco squandered four set points – including two on his serve – in the opening-set tiebreaker and then lost the only minibreak in the second tiebreaker when he hit a backhand into the net after a strong approach shot by Raonic to fall behind 4-2.
Verdasco fought off two match points on his serve but once again had no answer for the big-serving Raonic, who won it with a 138 mph serve that Verdasco hit into the net. Verdasco was upset because a fan yelled out just as he was about to hit the ball, but the point stood and Raonic got the final win in just his eighth career tournament.
Raonic had 13 aces and 20 service winners in the match, hitting 149 mph on one serve in the first set. Verdasco summed up the difference in the match succinctly: ”His serve.”
Raonic has had a strong start to the season, going through qualifying and winning three matches in the Australian Open and making it to his first ATP World Tour final. He has shot up the rankings from 156th at the end of last year to 84th heading into this week. He is expected to be 59th after this victory.
It’s a far cry from where he was at a year ago at this time, playing Futures tournaments in Europe with a ranking of 360th in the world.
“It’s been quite a month and a half, but an amazing month and a half,” he said. “I just hope to keep this going.”
In a scheduling quirk, he will have to do it against Verdasco, who gets a shot at a rematch in the first round of the tournament in Memphis on Wednesday. The draw for that tournament was Friday, before this matchup was even set.
Verdasco lost just seven points in 12 service games, but it was the four dropped points on his serve in the two tiebreakers that proved to be the difference.
He took a 6-2 lead in the first-set breaker with help from a double fault by Raonic. But Verdasco hit a forehand into the net to squander the first set point on his serve and then was unable to win it on Raonic’s serve, cutting the lead to 6-5. Verdasco then hit a forehand wide to even up the set and Raonic won it with a backhand winner followed by a service winner. He hopped off the court in excitement.
Raonic fought off the only break point of the match in the ninth game of the second set and once again took it in a tiebreaker, completing his perfect run through the week where he lost no sets and just one serve.
The Bay Area has been kind to Canadian tennis players in recent years. Aleksandra Wozniak ended a 20-year title drought for Canadian women when she won at Stanford in 2008. And now Raonic ended the drought on the men’s side in the same building where fellow Canadians such as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Dan Boyle star for the San Jose Sharks.
Raonic was given a Sharks jersey, along with the winners check for $92,000.
“It’s nice to know a hockey arena isn’t new to me,” Raonic said. “I’ve been in a few of these. This feels like home.”
The run to the final here comes after a difficult start to the season for Verdasco, who broke a bone in his left ankle at an exhibition in Kooyong in January. The injury affected him greatly in his fourth-round loss at the Australian Open to Tomas Berdych and Verdasco had to have a cortisone shot in order to avoid surgery.
As soon as he was ready to return to practice after the shot, he got a fever so he missed two full weeks of practice before coming to San Jose. But he was in fine form all week, not losing a set until the final and dropping just one service game all week.
“For all the practice I did the past two weeks, I did pretty good this week,” he said. “I’m happy to be in the final again.”