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SAP Open: Raonic Repeats in San Jose

Milos Raonic (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The 2012 edition of the SAP Open has come to an end, and the man holding the trophy is the same one who lifted it last year. Milos Raonic served his way to a second consecutive SAP Open title and second ATP title of 2012, becoming the first player to step into the winner’s circle twice this year. The final was closely contested until the first set tiebreak, and after that point the outcome was never in doubt. Raonic dominated on his own serve and returned well against Denis Istomin, winning the title in straight sets, with a scoreline of 7-6(3), 6-2.

It would be difficult to overstate just how superbly Raonic served against Istomin. The Canadian placed 48 serves in the court during the match and lost a measly 4 of those points. Istomin tried everything he could to find a way into the Raonic serve. He moved forward, he moved back, he guessed which way the serve was going, but the 6-foot, 5-inch Raonic was simply too good on the day. Istomin actually managed to get his racket on the ball more often than not, holding Raonic to just 7 aces, but it was struggle to keep the ball in the court, and even more so to do anything productive with it, instead of allowing Raonic to finish the point with his second shot, a penetrating and powerful forehand.

To say that the match was all about Raonic’s serve would be unfair, however. Istomin, who could easily have been overwhelmed by the occasion and the barrage of balls coming at him from Raonic’s racket, acquitted himself admirably in only his second career ATP final. He was constantly under pressure on his own serve during the first set, but played enough strong points to keep Raonic from breaking until the tiebreak. He was striking clean winners off both wings, down the line and cross-court, with a consistency that made his poor results from 2011 seem baffling.

In the tiebreak, the tension was ramped up significantly and the impressive mental strength from Raonic was on full display. Istomin dropped the first point in a very similar fashion to how Ryan Harrison started his tiebreak against Raonic in the semifinals, pushing a forehand just long of the baseline. Knowing that the Canadian could easily call on his unflappable serve in these pressure situations must make the court seem to shrink for his opponents, the margins for error disappear entirely, since one loose point could be enough to decide the set.

Istomin was never quite able to recover from that missed forehand to start the tiebreak. Even though a mis-hit return prompted an error from Raonic on his second service point, the Canadian ignored the minor setback and hit his next service return directly to Istomin’s feet, getting the mini-break back. He then struck a forehand winner and put a backhand volley in the corner, where Istomin was unable to get it back into court. In no time, the Canadian was up 6-1, with a bevy of set points at his disposal. Istomin managed to hold his next two service points, but the comeback was short lived, as Raonic took the set with a 145 mile per hour serve.

Just as it had happened in his semifinal, once Raonic had the first set under his belt, he was able to swing more freely. His serve speed reached the rarefied air of the 150′s, and his first service game in the second set was a love hold which featured a pair of aces. Istomin, on the other hand, must have felt frustrated that he had been able to play so well for the entire set and come out with nothing to show for it on the other end. His level dropped enough for Raonic to take advantage of the first break point opportunity in the entire match, going up 3-1, before ultimately breaking again to take the set 6-2.

In his post-match press conference, Istomin was jovial despite the loss. He was justly satisfied with his level of play over the course of the week and recognized that with how well Raonic was serving, it would have been difficult for anyone to make a breakthrough. He was extremely complimentary of his opponent, as well as excited about his start to the year. His ranking jumped twelve spots to just inside the top 50, and with hardly any points to defend in the coming months, he’s well within touching distance of his career high ranking of 39.

Raonic seemed even more pleased with himself, despite the fact that the level-headed Canadian actually manages to express his emotions even less than his opponent in the final, who does so in endearingly halting English. Milos was happy with his play on serve and particularly with his return game in the second set. He mentioned that he felt like he was playing above his level last year, when he won the tournament, but this year, he believes that he played within himself – it’s just that his new ‘normal’ is much better than it was a year before.

If Raonic manages to win 92% of his service points on a day where he felt like he was playing well but not doing anything spectacular, it will be fascinating to see what he manages to do when the Masters Series events roll around in Indian Wells and Miami, when he may be able to earn a chance to go up against one of the top four players in the world, all of whom are spectacular returners. If he believes that he can serve even better than he did today, then I think there’s a very real chance that the top players in the world will need to watch out.

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

Harrison played well, but Raonic was just too good today

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.

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.

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.

San Jose: Istomin Upsets Roddick in Quarterfinal

Andy Roddick San Jose SAP Open

After barely scraping through his last match at the SAP Open, in which he rolled his ankle midway through the second set, fans were left with questions about whether Andy Roddick would be able to bring his best tennis to his quarterfinal against Denis Istomin. After a thoroughly lopsided match in which the former world number one came up short in almost every area of his game, Roddick found himself bounced from the tournament. Istomin won the match 6-2, 6-4 and will move on to the semifinals on Saturday.

Roddick seemed to be able to produce hints of the level of tennis that had kept him in the top ten for nine of the last ten years. He opened the match with a 135 mph serve, but it was a fault. He only made a single first serve in his opening service game, and Istomin managed to break at love. Shockingly, Roddick was unable to settle into a rhythm on his first or second serve for the whole match. He managed only five aces, and overall won just over 55% of his total service points.

While Andy was struggling, his opponent was not about to give him a chance to find his game. The 25-year old player from Uzbekistan moved exceptionally well and played highly aggressive tennis, banging winners from the baseline and not allowing Roddick to get any rhythm. Istomin took advantage of Roddick’s hampered mobility by going for the sidelines, which he was able to reach with impressive regularity. What may have been most surprising was how effective Istomin managed to be on his own serve, which he used to snuff out any chance the American had hoped to build of earning a break point. By the end of the match, Istomin had actually out-aced Roddick.

The crowd continued pulling for the three-time SAP Open champion to make a comeback, and he refused to give in until the last ball was struck, but it was clear that Andy was unable to produce the kind of tennis he would have needed to take the match that night. Surely injuries were bothering him – both of his ankles were braced, and even though he famously refuses to talk about his physical problems with any specificity, it is likely that he was still bothered by the hamstring injury that pulled him out of Australia. Ultimately, the crowd was appreciative of the effort that Andy put forth but recognized that Istomin simply played the better match.

In his post-match press conference, Roddick was clearly discouraged and frustrated. His answers were terse, but he was forthright about the issues that were bothering him. He was dogged both by his lingering injuries that have kept him from practicing as much as he would like, as well as by an inability to stay in tournaments long enough to feel himself getting match-fit. If he tries to play through his injuries, they could become even more serious, but he certainly wouldn’t be able to get any matches under his belt if he took an extended layoff. This has also been one of Roddick’s favorite parts of the calendar: the indoor American swing leading up to the twin Masters events in Indian Wells and Miami. Once those tournaments are done, it will be nothing but the daunting red clay – Roddick’s least favorite surface – until Wimbledon in late June.

Based on his health and the strength of the field, Roddick will have a tough time defending his title in Memphis next week. If he loses the points from that tournament win, his ranking will plummet to nearly 30 in the world by the beginning of March. Schedule management is a difficult issue for any player, but particularly for one who knows that his days on the tour may be numbered, unless he can find a way to resolve his problems with persistent injuries.

In other quarterfinal action, Julien Benneteau overcame a strong first-set challenge from Belgian Steve Darcis to win 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. Benneteau will play Istomin in the semis. The other semifinal will feature 19-year old Ryan Harrison, who breezed past qualifier Dimitar Kutrovsky 6-1, 6-4 in 62 minutes and defending champion Milos Raonic, who pulled away from Kevin Anderson in straight sets, 7-5, 7-6 (3).

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