After being unable even to get through qualifying in a season-opening tournament in India, Milos Raonic and his booming serve have loudly announced his presence on tour.
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 in San Jose.
Raonic, who grew up in Thornhill, Ont., followed up a run to the round of 16 at the Australian Open last month with a win in his eighth career tournament. It's part of a stunning start to the year that even he wouldn't have believed possible if someone told him he would have accomplished all of this back in December.
"'Are you Santa? You're giving me all these great gifts,"' he said he would have asked a prognosticator who predicted these results.
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 217 km/h 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, reaching 239 km/h on the radar gun. Raonic, 20, became the youngest winner on tour since Marin Cilic won in New Haven in 2008 at age 19.
'I can't stop smiling'
Raonic has had quite a run after losing in the third round of qualifying in Chennai, India, to start the year. He went through qualifying and winning three matches in the Australian Open and then won in San Jose. With the victory, he has shot up to a projected spot in the top 60 in the rankings from 156th at the end of last year.
"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 in Memphis on Wednesday.
"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 was the difference.
With a 6-2 lead in the first-set breaker, Verdasco hit a forehand into the net off a strong approach by Raonic to squander the first set point on his serve. Raonic held on to his serve to cut 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, skipping 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 service game.
'A bit more confident'
"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."
Raonic, who left Montenegro with his family during a war in 1994, became the first Canadian to win on tour was Greg Rusedski, who won in Seoul in April 1995.
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, a bottle of maple syrup and the winners check for $92,000 US.
"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.
"For all the practice I did the past two weeks, I did pretty good this week," he said.