Citi Open / Peter Staples

As much as there were mixed feelings among Canadians when two of their own faced each other in the Citi Open final in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, it may have been fitting that Milos Raonic came out on top with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Vasek Pospisil.

It was a banner day for the red maple leaf with two Canadians playing in the final of a tour event for the first time ever. Long ago in the 19th century at a garden party-style tournament somewhere in England, two Canadians may have played for a title of sorts. But this was real deal international stuff and another major Canadian statement added to Grand Slam semi-finals for Eugenie Bouchard (as well as the Wimbledon final) and Raonic since the beginning of 2014.  

Raonic has had an impressive year, reaching a career high ranking of No. 6, the Wimbledon semi-finals on grass, the semifinals in Rome and the quarter-finals at Roland Garros on clay and the quarter-finals of both Indian Wells and Miami on hard courts.

It’s a diversified balance sheet of success and he certainly deserved a tournament title. This one in the Washington ATP 500 event is his sixth overall but his first above the ATP 250 level.

The victory puts him back at a career-high tying No. 6 in the rankings and comes after a season that began with a difficult first few months because of a tear in a tendon just above his left ankle.

He hurt it during his first match at the Australian Open against Daniel Gimeno-Traver and it affected his movement in his second-round win over Victor Hanescu and especially in a rough 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(10) loss to Grigor Dimitrov in the third round.

That was his first tournament of the year and a re-aggravation during a Davis Cup week in Tokyo in early February meant that his first two months of the season were almost totally lost.

He rebounded in exemplary fashion beginning in Indian Wells in the second week of March, and gradually built toward his big triumph on Sunday. It means that he now has a fourth consecutive year with at least one title – just 10 more to go before he equals the great Roger Federer.

Citi Open / Peter Staples

On Sunday, in the words of Pospisil, Milos “came out firing”, and a service break in the very first game, when Pospisil missed with a backhand well wide on break point, gave him the jump he needed to swing freely and decisively outplay Pospisil in a one-sided 29-minute opening set.

Raonic was particularly solid with his oft-criticized service return, consistently pinning Pospisil in uncomfortable court positions with his deep returns – including a backhand sizzler straight down-the-line to put a cap on the first set.

There had to be a fatigue factor in play with Pospisil, who played four sets on Saturday – finishing up a 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-4 quarter-final win over Santiago Giraldo and then rallying from 0-3 down in the final set to defeat Richard Gasquet 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-5 in an evening match.

In the afternoon, Raonic had his fourth consecutive straight-set victory of the tournament, beating Donald Young 6-4, 7-5.

The second set of the final was more representative of the competitive tennis Canada’s top two players can play. Pospisil won a few long rallies, including the best one of the match to get to 40-30, at 1-2 when he peppered the Raonic backhand with his inside/out forehand before crunching an inside/in forehand winner.

But Raonic never seemed fazed and hung in, capitalizing on three Pospisil unforced errors when he served at 4-5. The coup de gras was a beautiful angled backhand cross-court passing shot by Raonic that lasered by a lunging Pospisil after he had made an aggressive move to the net on championship point.

Citi Open / Peter Staples

Pospisil was briefly cordial at the beginning of the ritual handshake at the net but he soon stepped away as the disappointment set in.

It might have been nice to see the two Canadians embrace but they have never the closest of friends. But things have definitely improved between them – as was evidenced by the practice session they had (below) on Court 12 at Wimbledon two days before this year’s began.

That Pospisil was still gesturing angrily at himself as he sat in his courtside chair right after the last point was a good sign – he wants it bad, just as Raonic does.

Reaching his first ATP final may not have been enough for Pospisil – but it certainly is a positive step after what has been a nightmare of a first six months of the year for the 24-year-old.

He first felt the dodgy back, which would plague him, as long ago as the very end of 2013 in training. It then became unbearable and he had to retire in the semi-finals to Stan Wawrinka in the first week of the year in Chennai. He semi-miraculously got through two Aussies – Sam Groth and Matthew Ebden – at the Australian Open but then had to withdraw before a third round encounter against eventual champion Wawrinka.

After that it was one disappointment, one frustration after another as the back kept acting up – no Davis Cup in Tokyo the first week of February and then a rotten run of eight losses in a row from Acapulco in February until Queen’s Club in June.

I recall speaking to him after an abysmal 6-0, 6-2 loss to No. 58-ranked Mikhail Kukushkin in Indian Wells. He looked so bad that I recall saying to him, “did you know before the match that you had no chance?” (because of the back). He seemed a little puzzled by the question – but I’m sure in hindsight he realizes he really did have no hope due to his fitness at the time.

Things began to turn around after a visit to a doctor in the Czech Republic before the French Open in May. Then, by Wimbledon he finally felt “pain free” as he happily repeated many times with obvious relief.

Citi Open / Peter Staples

The hallmarks of Pospisil as an athlete are his strength, endurance and physicality – and those qualities were in evidence in his gutsy win over Giraldo in the Washington quarter-finals and his hard-fought victory against Richard Gasquet in the semi-finals. It was partly tennis, but an equal part Pospisil willpower.

The 300 points he has earned for his runner-up finish at the ATP 500 event will permit a much softer landing than might have been possible after Washington and this week’s Rogers Cup.

Worst case scenario – if Pospisil had lost first round in both Washington and Toronto, his current ranking of No. 36 (it will be No. 26 in the rankings dated Aug. 4, 2014) could have tumbled to about No. 80.

As things now stand, the worst he can be after the Rogers Cup is about No. 44. He has a testing re-match with Gasquet in his opener at the Rexall Centre on Tuesday.

As for Raonic, who plays his Rogers Cup opener against the winner of Jack Sock and Jurgen Melzer – both of whom have their only career wins over him at February’s indoor tournament in Memphis – he should be suitably fresh for a Wednesday evening (after a bye) start at home in Toronto.

The 500 points he won in Washington come close to covering his 600 points from being runner-up to Rafael Nadal at the Coupe Rogers in Montreal a year ago.

So, while there will be high expectations of him as the Rogers Cup No. 6 seed, he will also, in a sense, be playing with house money after his success in the American capital city.

Sunday’s first ever all-Canadian final of either a men’s or women’s main tour final will heightened hopes for the Rogers Cup – and the contagion could spread to Montreal and the Coupe Rogers where Eugenie Bouchard’s heady performances so far in 2014 make her a genuine contender to become the first women’s winner of Canada’s premier tournament since Faye Urban of Toronto 45 years ago in 1969.