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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).

San Jose: Harrison Beats Ginepri in Third Set Tiebreak

Ryan Harrison preparing to hit a backhand

At the SAP Open yesterday evening, two talented American players in very different stages of their careers met in the headline match. Ryan Harrison, the up-and-coming 19-year old, was coming off of his career best season last year, but had failed to get much momentum during the tour’s swing in Australia. He met Robby Ginepri, ten years older, who was trying to get back to the top level of the men’s game after breaking his arm in bicycling accident in October of 2010. The pair put on a high-quality tennis match, but in the end, youth was served when Harrison came away with the win, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(0).

As the match progressed, it became very difficult to ignore the resonance of the fact that these two players were poised at the opposite points in their career arcs. Ginepri is a three-time ATP titlist, former world number 15, and made it to the U.S. Open semifinals in 2005, losing to Andre Agassi. Ginepri was one of the American players coming up in the twilight of the era of Sampras-Agassi dominance, along with Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, and James Blake. He’s not ready to call it quits on his career by any means, and his renewed dedication to tennis developed during the time off his injury required, when he was able to get some perspective on what tennis meant to him. Judging by his performance tonight, he should have a few good years left in him.

On the other hand, Ryan Harrison is at the head of the new generation of American players, who were well-represented at this tournament. Denis Kudla bested Jack Sock and then gave veteran Andy Roddick a scare, but all three 19-year-olds should have promising tennis careers ahead of them. Thus far, it is Harrison who has demonstrated the greatest ability to capitalize on his potential. Last year, he reached back-to-back semifinals in Atlanta and Los Angeles, losing to top American Mardy Fish in both tournaments. He’s yet to have a signature win or claim his first title, but his tenacity and firepower have kept him on everyone’s radar.

The pair battled gamely from the very first, each taking turns at demonstrating their offensive and defensive skills. Both showed that they were able to strike powerful, penetrating ground strokes off both their forehand and backhand wings, as well as scramble and scrap their way back to a neutral position after their opponent had struck a particularly good ball. Harrison managed to break Ginepri and serve out the first set, but his level subsequently dropped enough for Ginepri to take the second set handily.

Once the third set began, both players began playing more consistently, and the match quickly began to heat up. Neither player was able to get a chance to break their opponent, until the very end of the set. Serving at 5-6, to try to get the match into the tiebreak, Harrison found himself down two break points – match points. On each of the two points, Ginepri did all he could to take the match. He attempted a scorching cross-court passing shot on the first, but Harrison managed to make a stellar lunging drop volley. On the second, Ginepri was forced to play a defensive lob, but Harrison had just buried an overhead into the net on the previous point. When he got his second chance, he made no mistake.

After saving those two match points, Harrison seemed invigorated in the tiebreak, while Ginepri was regretting his missed opportunities. The first point of the tiebreak went against sere when Ginepri missed a drop volley, and with his first two serves, Harrison produced a pair of powerful serves up the middle, neither of which Ginepri could get back in play. Once he was in a 3-0 hole, it proved to be too much for the elder American to dig himself out of.

There are times when being in Ryan Harrison’s shoes, with a decade of tennis ahead of you and innumerable opportunities along the way, makes it easier to swing freely in the pressure moments, as he did when he was down match points. For Robby Ginepri, he might have been wondering how many more chances like this he was going to have. Those thoughts can make it very difficult to play the kind of fearless tennis that Ryan Harrison produced yesterday.

San Jose: Andy Roddick Overcomes Injury and Denis Kudla to Win

Roddick playing a backhand return

There are times when it takes something special to invigorate a tennis tournament, to really make it feel like the competition has begun in earnest. Without question, the most thrilling and dramatic match in recent SAP Open memory came last night, when three-time champion Andy Roddick overcame a spectacular challenge from 19-year old qualifier Denis Kudla, 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 6-4. Under any set of circumstances, the match’s changes in momentum and stellar shot-making from both players would have had all the makings of a classic match. But it was an injury scare deep in the second set that raised the drama in this match to another level.

Roddick had started the match somewhat tentatively, which was cause for concern since the former world number one was playing his first tournament since withdrawing from the Australian Open with a hamstring injury. As the match wore on, it seemed to be more a result of a lack of match practice, rather than any lingering effects. Roddick found a serving rhythm, and while he was still not playing at his best, he was varying his shots effectively and moving well around the court.

It quickly became apparent that for Roddick, moving well would be an absolute necessity. His young opponent, who had to overcome some jitters at the start of the match, quickly settled into an extremely comfortable and surprising rhythm. Since Kudla is a newcomer to the ATP (he was playing in his ninth career tour-level match), not many of the viewers knew what to expect from him. Some had seen him play an excellent match in the first round against Jack Sock, in which he played solidly but largely beat the other young American with his consistency. He came out against the veteran with a much more difficult game plan.

Denis Kudla, who had reached the finals of the 2010 U.S. Open Junior tournament, played the majority of the match at a level that no one would have ever expected from a player ranked outside the top 200, except perhaps for Kudla himself. He had the confidence to go for shots that were for all intents and purposes, ridiculous. He would hit winners stretched wide to both his forehand and backhand side. He would blast shots up the line and rip cross-court winners. For a stretch, it not only seemed that Kudla was able to consistently paint the lines with his shots, it seemed that he was refusing to hit anywhere else on the court.

Roddick was clearly flustered by the flurry of winners coming off the 19-year old’s racket, and on many occasions when another cleanly-struck, line-licking ball flew past him, all he could do was roll his eyes in disbelief and get ready for the next point. This onslaught would have been enough to unsettle most players, but Roddick was clearly there to win. He may have only been playing, in his own words, “at 40%” throughout the first set, but he still managed to get it to a tie-break. Some aggressive play from his opponent in a key moment was enough to seal the set, and Roddick suddenly found himself down a set.

The second set saw Roddick up his intensity, buoyed by the crowd’s support and his own frustration. He started hitting his shots with more pace, while Kudla continued to swing freely, hardly concerned with the fact that he wasn’t supposed to be able to play that well for that long. Roddick was leading as the tail end of the set was drawing close, and the crowd was rooting for Andy to break and take the set. But when stretching out wide to return serve on the first point of the game at 4-5, Roddick rolled over on his ankle and screamed in pain as he rolled on the ground, covering his face with his hands.

The atmosphere in the arena was tense while the trainer evaluated the extent of Roddick’s injury. Ultimately, his ankle was put in a brace and took a few tentative steps. After the match, Andy admitted that he thought that the match might have been over, but he said in his press conference that he didn’t want to retire from another match with injury. He “was tired of doing that,” he said. Even when he returned to the court, it seemed like a long shot that he would be able to fight all the way back.

He was clearly moving a bit gingerly on his injured ankle, finding it difficult to push off that side. In his first service game after the injury, Roddick found himself in a love-forty hole. If he was broken there, surely Kudla would be able to serve out the match. It was at that point that the 19-year old first showed signs that he was feeling the pressure. Kudla had a simple cross-court pass that would have given him the break, but he pushed it slightly wide. Despite being slightly hobbled, Roddick seemed to detect the little waver in his opponent’s nerve, and he somehow managed not only to hold serve, but he also managed to eke out the tiebreak that followed.

Two hours in and the pair were tied at a set apiece. Each had held serve twelve straight times. Shockingly, the third set started with Kudla – who must have been severely disappointed that he hadn’t been able to wrap the match up already – finding a way to break Andy Roddick’s serve. It was at this point, once again, that Kudla blinked. He had the victory in his sights, and the pressure of beating a player who had inspired him while he was growing up proved to be too much. Kudla was broken twice, largely off of shots that he had been making for the first two sets, but were now landing well wide of the lines.

In the end, Roddick was happy to get the win and hopeful that his ankle would recover in time for him to play his best in Friday’s quarterfinal. But he believed that Kudla struggled with the prospect of winning the match, once the reality of it was so close. He knew that he’d been let off the hook, in some ways, by the younger American, and he understood the special kind of pressure that came with closing out a big upset.

Over the course of two hours and forty-two minutes, Roddick and Kudla played 257 total points. The match was so close that the final breakdown of points won was Kudla – 128 and Roddick – 129. The one extra point that Roddick won turned out to be the only point that mattered: match point.

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