SAN JOSE, CALIF. — It should
come as no surprise that Milos Raonic is comfortable in a hockey rink. The Canadians, after all, are passionate about their puck, to say the least.
“I’ve been in a few of them,” Raonic joked. “Feels like home.”
It’s fitting that he should win the first ATP title of his career at the HP Pavilion — aka The Shark Tank — home to the NHL’s San Jose franchise, where he dethroned defending SAP Open champ Fernando Verdasco 7-6(6), 7-6(5) to become the first Canadian to register an ATP singles title in more than a decade and a half.
“It’s something that came quicker than expected, but it’s something amazing,” said the 20-year-old Raonic, who leapt from No. 152 at the end of last year to No. 84 coming into San Jose, and will now move inside the top 60. “I can’t stop smiling. You don’t forget your first, whether it’s a tennis tournament, a first kid — all these things you’re never going to forget. It’s surreal.”
“I told him before the match to stay in there to the very end, and he did,” Raonic’s coach, former touring pro Galo Blanco, told Inside Tennis. “He was fighting for all the points. If you fight, anything can happen.”
Verdasco, who practiced with Raonic prior to the Australian Open, was familiar with his opponent’s significant skill set and had even forecasted a top-20 finish for 2011. But on Sunday evening, the Spaniard was clearly caught off guard by Raonic’s serve (he finished with 13 aces and surrendered just seven points on his first serve).
“There must be another league for players like him because it’s another sport. When you serve all the time 140 miles an hour, and every time there’s a chance it’s going to hit the line, you cannot even play tennis,” said Verdasco, who had a successful serving week himself, holding serve in 52 of 53 games. “It’s tough to play like that.”
Verdasco’s undoing came when he let four set points slip away in the first-set tiebreaker. Serving for the stanza up 6-5, he swatted a topspin forehand wide. Raonic responded by jumping ahead 7-6 on a big crosscourt backhand, and then served out the set with a 126 mph service winner.
“I made just one mistake on my forehand at 6-5,” said Verdasco. “All the other points he played aggressive. I didn’t do anything bad. There wasn’t much I could do.”
The 27-year-old Verdasco hung in the match, but with Raonic regularly landing first serves and often dictating play with his forehand, it soon became clear that the match would come down to a few key points. Serving for the match at 6-5 in the second set tiebreaker, Raonic unleashed a serve down the T as a spectator let out a scream. A jolted Verdasco dumped the 138 mph offering into the net and, understandably irked, immediately turned to chair umpire Steve Ullrich.
“It was a big distraction when he was serving, one guy screaming when all the stadium is in silence,” said Verdasco. “It’s already tough to return a serve 135 miles per hour. With championship points against you, even more if somebody’s screaming. So I was hoping that the chair umpire would at least do something, or say something.”
“What I hope is that there are no people like that in the stadium,” he continued. “They don’t know the rules in tennis. They can go to see soccer.”
Raonic heard the yell, too, but Ullrich opted not to replay the point. And Raonic wasn’t about to second-guess the final outcome.
“A win’s a win,” said Raonic, who notched only the second top-10 win his career and became the youngest winner of an ATP Tour title since Croat Marin Cilic won New Haven in 2008.
Raonic’s victory capped a four-continent journey that, in a matter of weeks, has taken him from India to Australia to South Africa to the U.S., where he nearly arrived without a coach. During a second-round loss to Germany’s Simon Greul in Johannesburg, Raonic lost his composure and took it out on Blanco, who, as a result, threatened skip the trip to California.
“He said it’s not great for the relationship, that it’s disrespectful to talk that way to him,” Raonic reflected. “This sticks with me because I don’t want to be a disrespectful person.”
By the luck of the draw, Verdasco will face Raonic again next week in the first round in Memphis.
“I will just pray a lot that he will make a lot of double faults,” joked Verdasco.