PARIS — Canadian Milos Raonic’s most reliable weapon was turned back on him on Sunday.
Raonic admitted that top-ranked Novak Djokovic handled his normally threatening serve with ease as the Serb defended his Paris Masters title with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over the native of Thornhill, Ont.
"Every time he put his racket on the ball, he was making me play a deep ball," said the tenth-ranked Raonic. "If he gave me a short return and I would attack, he would be there. It elevated a certain pressure or demand of having to serve close to the lines.
"That weighs on your shoulders when the guy is playing as well as he did today."
Despite the disappointing finish to the Masters tournament, Raonic’s season has been extended. His play in Paris has helped him qualify for next week’s World Tour Finals in London for the first time.
Djokovic, who did not drop a set during the whole week, won the indoor tournament for the third time on Sunday and claimed the 20th Masters title of his career. The Serbian limited his opponent’s serve, with Raonic scoring only nine aces after reaching double figures in many of his matches this week.
Djokovic also made a big step in his bid to finish the year at the No. 1 spot for a third time, extending his lead over Roger Federer before the finals in London from Nov. 9-16.
The 23-year-old Raonic, who has never beaten Djokovic in their four meetings, appeared apprehensive and could not convert his few openings.
Djokovic’s only scare came in the first set when Raonic won eight straight points but failed to convert three consecutive break opportunities.
Raonic saved the three break points in the sixth game, two of them with aces. Djokovic then recovered from 0-40 down to hold a game later for 5-2 before taking the opening set in 43 minutes.
"The key points of the match was to get as many returns back in play (as possible). It’s easier said than done when somebody serves regularly around 220 kilometres an hour," said Djokovic. "Milos uses that as his big weapon, throughout the week that was his best shot. He relies on the serve very much in his game.
"If you can make him play an extra shot, maybe he’s going to drop the percentage of first serves and I can step in and maybe take initiative on the second."
Raonic dropped to 0-2 in the second set on a double-fault and saved two match points in the penultimate game with a service winner and a pass before Djokovic closed out the win a game later, firing a forehand winner down the line to clinch victory.
"He played some great tennis; neutralized my serve well," said Raonic. "Even when I was able to open him on the backhand side, he was moving really well. He was always getting two hands on it. It was never sort of defending with a slice.
"He was always playing deep and didn’t really give me too many looks. Even on the break chances I had, he played them well. He just made life difficult for me today."
Raonic, who won his first career match against a member of the top three tennis elite in the quarter-finals when he upset Roger Federer, had backed up that success in the semis, beating fifth-ranked Tomas Berdych.
But Djokovic was not going to be another victim.
"I was feeling good about things," said Raonic. "In the last two matches, I’ve been playing some really good tennis. I felt ready to face on the challenge and try to make the most of the opportunity."
As he heads to his World Tour Finals debut, Raonic is nursing some minor doubts.
"The toughest thing — especially for the first time in London — is going to be to adapt to is not really having those early round matches where you sort of find your way into the event, tournament," said Raonic.
Raonic is the first Canadian to play in the year-ending singles tournament. Toronto’s Daniel Nestor, playing with Serbian partner Nenad Zimonjic, will be in the doubles competition.