SAP Open: Defending Champ Raonic through to Final, Faces Istomin

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The SAP Open final is set for Sunday, with defending champion Milos Raonic preparing to defend his title after a hard-fought 7-6(4), 6-2 victory over 19-year old American hope Ryan Harrison. At the start of the week, Raonic was surely one of the favorites to make it to the final, but his opponent is something of a surprise. From the half of the draw that contained former champions Andy Roddick and Radek Stepanek, the top Uzbekistani player Denis Istomin has fought his way to the final after beating Julien Benneteau 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-3.

Harrison played well, but Raonic was just too good today

Raonic will be trying to defend a title for the first time and at his first opportunity, since his victory in last year’s SAP Open was the first tournament win of his career. In addition to trying for his second SAP Open title, Raonic is hoping to win his second title of the year, after he bested Serbian number two Janko Tipsarevic in the final of the Chennai Open in three tiebreak sets. Raonic is now 10-1 since the start of 2012, with his only loss coming to Lleyton Hewitt in the third round of the Australian Open. His match against Harrison was tight, with both players serving extremely well in the first set. During the inevitable tiebreak, the American up-and-comer played one loose point to start it off, and that was sufficient to allow Raonic to take the breaker. Once he had secured the first set, the lanky Canadian began swinging more freely and hitting his serve even harder, tipping the speed gun over 150 miles per hour on multiple occasions. It was too much for Harrison to whether, after dropping such a close first set.

Denis Istomin’s semifinal against Julien Benneteau was no less competitive, but it would be difficult to say that there had been as much of an extended period of consistent play from both players as there had been in the first set between Raonic and Harrison. Both Istomin and Benneteau played spectacular shots from every part of the court, but each of them had their ups and downs. After going up by a set and getting the second set to a tiebreak, Istomin cracked a backhand return winner to take the first minibreak, but with the end of the match in sight, he faltered and ended up losing the breaker. In the closing stages of the third set, however, Istomin upped his aggression once again, and this time managed to sustain his level long enough to break Benneteau and serve out the match. This was the first time that Istomin had managed to even take a set off the Frenchman, after three previous meetings.

Istomin will be competing in only his second career ATP final. He reached his first in August of 2010, in the New Haven tournament where he lost in three sets to Sergiy Stakhovsky. Since then, Istomin’s results dipped in 2011 when he reached just one quarterfinal during the entire year, which was at the SAP Open. He has started this year off with much stronger results, with a 9-3 record on the year. In 2011, Istomin only managed 10 wins over the course of the entire year. He’s been serving better and playing with more consistency off the ground than he was last year, waiting for better opportunities to deliver his booming winners. Particularly this week, Istomin has reminded some viewers of Czech Tomas Berdych for the way he strikes the ball off both wings, though Denis has yet to demonstrate the kind of firepower that propelled Berdych into the top ten and all the way to a Wimbledon final.

Raonic felt confident in his level play in his post-match press conference

If Istomin wants to win his maiden title against Raonic, he will certainly have his work cut out for him. When asked what he would have to do to win the match, he laughingly replied that he would need to return Raonic’s serve. But that has not been an easy task. In the two years that Raonic has been playing the SAP Open, he has only dropped serve twice in seven matches: once this year against Tobias Kamke, and once last year against James Blake. Other than that, he’s been untouchable on serve. Ultimately, it will likely come down to big points. In the seven matches that Raonic has played at the SAP Open, he’s played seven tiebreaks, and he’s won every single one of them. Istomin comes into the final with a less impressive tiebreaker record, since he’s just 1-3 on the year. That could prove to be the difference.

Defending a title is never an easy task, but winning the first title of your career isn’t either. Up to this point, Raonic has proven to be unflappable in the most tense situations. All he needs to do is reach back and bring out another 150 mile per hour serve. If he can hold his nerve and play consistently, in addition to serving well, it will be difficult for Istomin to maintain a sufficiently high level of play for long enough to take a set from Raonic. That said, both of these players love playing at the SAP Open. Both of them have more wins at this tournament than any other. I have no doubt that both of them desperately want one more win at the HP Pavilion this year.

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