California: Milos Raonic became the first Canadian to win an ATP Tour title since 1995 by winning a hard-fought match on Sunday over defending-champion Fernando Verdasco 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5) in the final of the SAP Open.
The 20-year-old Raonic won in his first career final, becoming the youngest winner on tour since Marin Cilic claimed the New Haven title 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 break of serves, it was the smallest differences that decided the winner. Spain's 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 (222 kph) 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 despite his complaints to the chair umpire that he was distracted.
"What I hope is that there are not people like that in the stadium," Verdasco said. "If they don't know the rules in tennis they can go see soccer."
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, who left Montenegro with his family during a war in 1994, 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.
"I can't stop smiling," he said. "I'm happy about it and I hope I can keep it going more than six weeks, for a full year schedule, and see where I am at the end of the year."
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 at Memphis on Wednesday. The draw for that tournament was Friday, before this match-up was even set.
"I will just pray a lot that he will hit a lot of double faults and I won't even have to play," Verdasco said.
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.
"When it gets close, it comes down to who gets it that day and it comes down to a few points," Raonic said "I sort of used up my luck today and got out of that first set. In the second set, I was a bit more confident by then and it came out the way I wanted to."
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 NHL team 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."
Verdasco's run to the final came after a difficult preparation. He had a cortisone shot to help ease the pain of a broken bone in his left ankle after the Australian Open. Then when he was ready to return to practice, 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, dropping just one service game.