Montreal: Nadal d. Raonic

Much as pretty much everyone predicted, the final of the Montreal Masters 1000 was to a great degree determined by the serve. Only it wasn’t surprise finalist Milos Ranoic’s serve that dominated the match on this historic day in Canadian tennis; it was the tricky, slippery, left-handed serve of Rafael Nadal.

Nadal rode that serve, and the additional pressure felt by first-time Masters 1000 finalist Raonic, to an easy 6-2, 6-2 win in just 68 minutes. The relative ease of his win helped dampen the joy Canadians felt at seeing one of their countrymen in a Masters final — a run that ensured that Raonic would become the first Canadian male to crack the top 10 in the history through 40 years of ATP computer rankings.

For years now, Nadal has served as a kind of poster boy for the threat represented by strapping lads with atomic serves. It isn’t like he routinely lost to players like John Isner, Andy Roddick, Ivan Ljubicic, Kevin Anderson, or even Raonic. It was more the trepidation he’s freely expressed before matches against such men, coupled with his reputation as the ultimate race horse of the ATP.

When a horse that clearly loves to run is hobbled, and in his case unable to pound forehands and backhands, he easily gets anxious and skittish. And a few demonstrations of that principle obviously goes a long way in a pundit’s imagination.

So it was only appropriate that Nadal would deliver the message learned by so many big servers at Wimbledon: That you can’t just serve your way to a title, and even the biggest of servers needs to be able to return a little in order to oppress and bamboozle an opponent. Raonic was unable to meet that mandate, and it highlighted a generally underestimated aspect of Nadal’s game. When he’s serving well, only one of his true peers can trouble him.

Some of the details were ugly; if you didn’t know who was who and just heard that “he won just one point against the other guy’s serve in the entire set” you’d probably guess that was a reference to Nadal, and that Raonic was having the outstanding serving day he fervently hoped for. Not so. It was the other way around.

Nadal broke Raonic in the third game (thereby escaping any pressure to hold his own serve as the set wore on) as well as the fifth to start things off, and that explains why the Montreal crowd was stunned and chastised for most of the match. Nadal just sliced through Raonic like a knife through butter to win the first set, and then broke again when Raonic tossed in a brace of double faults in the first game of the second set.

Raonic had exactly one chance to get back into the match in the second set. That was when he parlayed his best backhand placement of the day and an unreturnable forehand volley into three break points with Nadal serving at 2-1.

Break point 1: A Nadal ace (hit in response to a time violation call by the chair umpire).

Break point 2: After a rally, Ranoic buried a forehand in the net.

Break point 3: Raonic hit a so-so approach shot and watched as Nadal whistled a backhand cross-court pass by his outstretched racquet.

Nadal then won his fourth and fifth successive point to hold, and he wouldn’t be anywhere near trouble again the rest of the way.

In all fairness to Raonic, he had a poor day at the service notch, converting just 50 percent of his first serves (compared to Nadal’s excellent 70 percent). But the real takeaway is that Raonic was the one who felt pressure to hold because of the other guy’s serving prowess. Nadal’s own serve was very quietly effective and so he was able to turn the conventional wisdom upside-down.

Stat of the match: Nadal won 78 percent of his first-serve points, while Raonic converted just 60 percent of the ones that he managed to land in the box on the first try.

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