Raonic, Pospisil to take new step for Canadian tennis

Milos Raonic is no longer looking towards making Canadian history. As far as the books will say, he's already achieved it. He instead is taking aim at bigger things for himself and for his country.

For a while now, we’ve been having to re-examine the way in which we — dedicated fans and otherwise — examine Canada’s place in the tennis world.

You surely no longer hear the “who cares?” refrain from those who don’t put the sport at the top of their must-watch list. It’s no longer easy to simply dismiss Canadians, men and women, on the international tennis circuit, as merely cannon fodder for the real movers and shakers of the tennis world. We no longer can simply characterize Davis Cup and Fed Cup as prizes for which other countries compete.

The likes of Milos Raonic, Eugenie Bouchard and Vasek Pospisil have changed all that over the past two years, with contributions from the likes of Filip Peliwo, Frank Dancevic, Aleksandra Wozniak and even Old Man River himself, Daniel Nestor.

We’re now a country to watch. To be watched, both inwardly and outwardly. The Canadian Press named Raonic and Bouchard as its male and female athletes of the year for 2013.

Within that context, however, it’s generally been about Canadians helping Canadians, about colleagues and teammates, about a collaborative effort to change the possibilities for Canadians in tennis, and to change the way in which people look at Canadian tennis.

That changes today.

Raonic and Pospisil, long-time Davis Cup teammates, must now also be viewed as rivals at the highest levels of the sport.

Athletes out to knock each out off, in other words, not just lend each other a helping hand.

Another new step for the game in Canada.

PROGRAMMING ALERT: Watch Milos Raonic vs Vasek Pospisil live on Sportsnet 360 with coverage starting at 3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT.

Sure, there have always been rivalries within Canada at the provincial and national levels, vying for recognition and ranking points within our country. That goes back decades.

But this final in Washington today is something different entirely. It’s not a Grand Slam final, and not even as prestigious an event as the Masters 1000 event that commences in Toronto this week.

But the Citi Open in D.C. is a 500 tournament, the third tier, and as such contained five of the top 20 players in the world this week, a solid competition even after Grigor Dimitrov pulled out with and injury.

Two Canadians have never before met in the final of an ATP tournament at this level. Raonic has never won a tournament this big. Pospisil hasn’t even come close to capturing a competition of this stature as a singles player, although he did win the Wimbledon doubles title with American youngster Jack Sock last month.

Since his rapid ascent up the ATP rankings that started in early 2011 — he jumped from No. 156 in the world to No. 25 in five months — Raonic has been the undisputed top dog among male Canadian players. His ferocious serve set him apart, and he quickly became the player around whom Canada’s Davis Cup squad revolved. When it came down to the court surface and the location, Tennis Canada asked Raonic what he wanted. When he wanted to play doubles, he did.

That’s still largely the case. But Pospisil has changed the conversation over the past year, and may be on the verge of really altering the way in which we view this pair of rising tennis talents.

Pospisil, really, has done just as much for Canada at the Davis Cup level as Raonic as the No. 2 singles player and Nestor’s most reliable doubles partner. On the tour, he has moved from No. 130 early last year to as high as No. 25, and his run to the semifinals of the Rogers Cup last August signaled a change in expectations.

It was there he collided with Raonic in an all-Canadian semifinal at a packed Uniprix Stadium in Montreal. Raonic won the first set 6-4, Pospisil bounced back with a resounding 6-1 triumph in the second set and the third went to a tiebreak, with Raonic winning that 7-4 to move on to the final against Rafael Nadal. It really was a match that could have gone either way, and Pospisil undoubtedly felt he’d let a big chance slip away.

Notable that day was the perfunctory handshake when it was over. It wasn’t a case of if-I-couldn’t-win-I’m-sure-glad-he-did. No embrace, no hug. A quick simple handshake. Pospisil wasn’t Raonic’s understudy that day, and you could tell he no longer wished to be perceived that way.

Then, it was seen as a bit of a fluke that they’d met in a Masters semifinal. Yet here we are today, and it’s no fluke. Raonic is the second seed, Pospisil has beaten Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet to get here.

The two have been Davis Cup teammates for years, and in 2010, before either was anybody, they teamed up for fun at the Rogers Cup to knock off Nadal and Novak Djokovic in a doubles match.

But while friendly, they wouldn’t be described as friends or pals or guys who hang out together on the road. More working colleagues, and now, they are clearly rivals, reaching for the same goals and opportunities.

Raonic may be among the greatest servers of all time, and has sharpened the weaker parts of his game under the watchful eye of former tour pro Ivan Ljubicic to become the first Canadian male to ever be ranked in the top 10. Pospisil is the superior athlete — he’s built like a prototypical wide receiver — and has a better all around game, including at the net where he is a world class volleyer.

They are more different than similar as players, with Pospisil six months and four days older than Raonic, and Raonic the bigger and heavier athlete. Pospisil is entertaining to watch, Raonic is fearsome.

Raonic has a decided advantage today, and not just because his ranking is higher. Pospisil had to finish off his quarterfinal clash with Santiago Giraldo of Colombia on Saturday and then face Gasquet in a grueling three-set semifinal match which was a thing of beauty to watch.

Raonic, meanwhile, cruised past Donald Young of the U.S. on Saturday in the semis without a great deal of fuss, and hasn’t really been pushed to the limit at all over the past week. So it’s unclear how much gas Pospisil will have left for today’s final, although anyone who watched him defeat the Israeli Davis Cup team almost by himself on that unforgettable, overheated September weekend in Tel Aviv three years ago would tell you this young man is capable of extraordinary physical efforts.

Every country of note in the tennis world has a pecking order. Roger Federer comes first for Switzerland no matter what Stan Wawrinka does. Nadal is the leader of the Spanish Armada and nothing can change that. Djokovic leads Serbia, Berdych leads the powerful Czech Republic, and so on.

For Canada, Raonic is the top dog, but he hasn’t yet accomplished so much that Pospisil has no chance of laying claim to being Canada’s best sometime in the future.

Perhaps that sometime starts today on yet another historic day for Canada tennis.

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