Raonic tops Istomin to repeat as SAP Open champion
By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Milos Raonic has served notice: He's healthy again and one of the most unstoppable forces in tennis is back.
Raonic captured a second straight SAP Open championship Sunday behind a powerful serve nobody in San Jose could solve, rolling past Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan 7-6 (3), 6-2 in the finals.
Raonic (pronounced Rau-nitch) ripped seven aces and lost only four points on his serve the entire match, turning the tournament into a serving exhibition in the climate-controlled conditions of an indoor arena.
The 6-foot-5 Canadian has dropped only two service games in two years in San Jose.
"This really just for myself, I think, puts a lot of the injury thing behind me but also for a lot of other people," said Raonic, whose rapid rise stalled last year following hip surgery in July. "I'm back and playing better tennis than ever before."
After a slip on Wimbledon's grass last year slowed his surge, Raonic is rising rapidly again. The 21-year-old, who also had to be replaced last week in Canada's loss to France in the Davis Cup because of a left knee injury, began the tournament ranked 32nd and will head to Memphis next week as one of the favorites.
Raonic relied on his powerful, penetrating serve to again punish his opponent.
He won 44 of 48 points on his serve in the final and has won 83 of 85 service games in two years at the tournament. In the serene surroundings of an NHL arena, Raonic roared in the final.
Raonic unleashed a 150 mph ace past Istomin at the start of the sixth game that drew stunned roars from the crowd. Istomin challenged the point - perhaps in part to try to shake up his opponent - on a ball that clearly landed inside the line, even chuckling as he watched the video screen while setting up for the next point.
"I didn't see it at all," Istomin said, laughing. "That's why I challenged it."
That's about all he could do.
After neither player could break the other, Raonic rested on his serve in a first-set tiebreaker. He fired a backhand return right at Istomin, forcing his lanky opponent to backpedal into a miss, and followed with a forehand approach for a winner to go ahead 5-1 in the breaker.
Istomin had little room for error.
He flicked a forehand into the net and sailed a baseline backhand long to fall behind 3-1 in the second set and never had so much as a break point. Raonic pounced on Istomin again to force a backhand long and then a forehand into the net on match point, looking to the rafters and raising his hands in triumph while Istomin simply smirked.
"I think last year I was a lot more unaware of what was really going on," Raonic said. "This year, I have a lot higher expectations. I know how to prepare, I know how to deal with things and I feel like I'm a much better tennis player than I was last year."
The results show.
A year ago, Raonic became the first Canadian to win an ATP Tour title since Greg Rusedski won in South Korea in 1995. Now he has three career singles titles - and is the first two-time winner on the tour this year after winning in India earlier this month - and is again making a name for himself on the circuit.
Raonic joins Andy Murray (2006-07), Andy Roddick (2004-05), Mark Philippoussis (1999-2000) and Pete Sampras (1996-97) - whose serve Raonic mimicked as a kid in Canada - as recent back-to-back champions in San Jose. He took home the winner's check for $95,860, while Istomin won $50,485.
In doubles, Mark Knowles and Xavier Malisse beat Kevin Anderson and Frank Moser 6-4, 1-6, 10-5 (tiebreaker) in the finals. It was Knowles' 55th career doubles title in his 99th final.
But all the attention remained on the young man with a bright yellow shirt and a wicked serve on court.
Raonic rose to as high as No. 25 in the rankings last year - the highest ever for a Canadian - before his season derailed with a slip on Wimbledon's grass. He had hip surgery in July that sliced his season short, still earning ATP Newcomer of the Year honors after such a stirring start.
The Bay Area also has been kind to other Canadian athletes in recent years.
Aleksandra Wozniak ended a 20-year title drought for Canadian women when she won at Stanford in 2008. And Raonic ended the streak on the men's side last year in the same building where fellow Canadians such as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle star for the NHL's San Jose Sharks.
"If the real estate wasn't so expensive here," Raonic said, "maybe I'd buy a place."
A few more wins and he might be able to afford a house anywhere he wants.
Follow Antonio Gonzalez at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP
Updated February 19, 2012