Imagine the young Canadian standing with the trophy above his head on centre court at the Rexall Centre, just twenty minutes away from his Thornhill home.
Imagine what it would do for tennis in Canada.
Well, Kei Nishikori experienced the equivalent of that as he beat Raonic in three sets, becoming the first Japanese player to win the Rakuten Japan Open.
It seemed only fitting that Raonic and Nishikori faced off in the youngest ATP final of the year. Both players are future ATP stars and both have put their respective countries on the tennis map.
After Raonic upset Andy Murray in the semifinals, he entered the final against Nishikori as the favourite. But Sunday’s final was Nishikori’s moment for the taking and Raonic’s semi-final win was his.
When Murray last faced Raonic it was at September’s U.S. Open and it was a one-sided affair – Murray was unbeatable, and despite his efforts, Raonic couldn’t counter-act the eventual champ’s punches.
At Flushing Meadows, Raonic didn’t return well, he wasn’t aggressive enough and he simply wasn’t consistent. Oh how things can change in one month.
The Raonic who faced Murray in the Tokyo semifinals was zoned in from the very start, breaking Murray in the very first game of the match. Raonic returned serves aggressively, came to the net often, ran Murray back and forth across the baseline and didn’t hesitate on his groundstrokes. Raonic is more than just a big serve and that’s why he’s been so successful.
But this win took time. Raonic has experienced his fair share of losses against the ‘Big Four’ this season including three close matches against Roger Federer.
For a young player still relatively new on the ATP tour, those losses are a good learning experience and helped Raonic deal with tough situations, like being down 1-4 in the third set to Murray. Most players in that position would have mentally checked out, but Raonic fought back to win and saved two match points in the process. Not many players, regardless of age, can do that against a player like Murray.
Does Raonic still have room to improve? Absolutely. But that’s the fun part.
With more experience comes more consistency and that’s what Raonic needs. Raonic didn’t play his best against Nishikori, who took time to study Raonic’s match against Murray before facing the Canuck in the final. Nishikori didn’t allow Raonic to play the same match that he did against Murray – he cut off Raonic’s blistering inside out backhand and didn’t give him many opportunities to come into the net.
Since his coming out party at the 2011 Australian Open, Raonic has improved immensely and the sky is the limit for this 21-year-old, now ranked no. 14 in the world.