It featured some nervous points early and excellent shot-making as the match progressed, but in the end, it was Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont. who ultimately defeated countryman Vasek Pospisil of Vancouver in three tense sets Saturday to advance to the Rogers Cup final for the first time.
On Sunday, Raonic will bid to become the first Canadian to win the event since Bob Bedard did it in 1958, back when it was known as the Canadian Open.
To do so, Raonic will need to defeat Spain's Rafael Nadal, who won a tight, thrilling three-set victory over the world's No. 1 player, Novak Djokovic in the other semi-final. Nadal, a 12-time Grand Slam champion, won a 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2) decision over Djokovic in what was the match of the tournament - a well-played exhibition of pure shot-making by both players. As well as the Canadians fared this week, this was tennis at a much higher level. Raonic will go in as the underdog and the best that he can hope for is that a short night's rest might present him with a fatigued opponent. Nadal holds a 3-0 lifetime record against Raonic.
With the win, Raonic also became the first Canadian player ever to crack the top-10 on the ATP tour. Of all the things he accomplished this week – including turning around a season that had been going off the rails in recent months – Raonic said cracking the top 10 meant the most to him.
“For me, it's a very special day to get to a goal I set for myself earlier this year, which looked a little bit difficult after how I played recently,” said Raonic. “To do it here in Montréal, it's a relief and it's a happy feeling.”
Relief was the operative word for Raonic in his far-ranging, post-match press conference that followed the first all-Canadian semi-final ever played in an ATP Masters 1000 event, where Raonic needed all of his guile to eke out the 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4) win. The match took two hours and 11 minutes to play.
There was only a single service break in the opening set, where Pospisil seemed to have trouble with jitters, but he played an extremely good second set, breaking Raonic twice to win easily.
Raonic took an extra-long bathroom break at that moment and acknowledged afterward that it had everything to do with trying to steady his nerves.
The third set went the distance on serve, and in the tiebreaker, Raonic served up some of the slowest second serves of his career.
“I don't think I've served 116 [k.p.h.] on a second serve … I think I passed that benchmark probably when I was 15,” he said. “It was weird for me to be experiencing something like. ‘What am I doing?’ I was asking myself.”
Raonic rattled off the first three points in the tie-breaker, lost the next three, but then dug in from there. In what might have been the best point of the match, with Raonic up 6-4 in the tiebreaker, Pospisil made a good forehand that appeared out of Raonic’s reach. But Raonic stretched and got his racquet on it and cracked it past Pospisil, who was able to get a racquet on it, but not enough to make a clean volley and ultimately dumped it into the net.
“I was surprised he got it back, to put his racquet on the volley,” said Raonic, who showed uncharacteristic emotion in celebrating the victory. “I was a little bit relieved it went in the net.”
According to Pospisil, it wasn’t the necessarily setting – playing such a big match for such high stakes - that created the nervous tension that percolated throughout the match, but the fact that he was playing Raonic, an opponent he knew so well.
“I think it was probably a little bit the same for him,” said Pospisil. “We played each other so many times. We grew up together. I don't think either one wanted to lose.
“Maybe if it was somebody else, who knows, maybe I would have won, and I wouldn't have gotten a little bit nervous at the end. I think somebody had to lose it, and unfortunately for me it was me.”
Nor was he upset at Raonic for the delay at the start of the third set, when all the momentum in the match had switched over to him.
“I mean, I was expecting him to try to throw me off or something,” he said, with a laugh. “It didn't change anything. He came out, he was serving great. I was playing just as well, but he was just serving a little bit better in the third set when he needed to.”
The loss ended a magical run for Pospisil who’d previously eliminated John Isner, Radek Stepanek, Tomas Berdych and Nikolai Davydenko to get to the semi-finals. It also marked the biggest pay day of his career - $135,060. He also earned 360 ranking points and will move into the top 40, likely to No. 39, when the new rankings come out next week.
That would him in the heady company of players such an Alexander Dogopolov, Ernests Gulbis, and Bernard Tomic – a nice rise for a player who only two weeks ago, was No. 89 in the world.
Moreover, Pospisil will now get to play in Cincinnati, another Masters 1000 series event. Pospisil drew 15th-seeded Gilles Simon of France in the opening round. He will fly out Sunday and expects to play that match Tuesday.
Raonic, meanwhile, will await the winner of the second semi-final and said he wished only that they played “a long match too.”
Pospisil had to balance a tough three-set loss against the strides he made all week and said that after an hour or so, he was able to put matters into perspective.
“It was tough for me,” he acknowledged. “I felt like I was, not dominating, but winning most of the points from the baseline once the rallies were started. I felt like was in a good position. The tiebreak got away from me a little bit there at the end, a couple loose points.
“But I went for it. No regrets. I didn't want to lose the match playing defensive. I tried to go for it even with the nerves that there were. This time it didn't work out. Hopefully next time it will.”
Click here for The Globe and Mail's live blog of the all-Canadian semi-final.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this online story used an incorrect spelling for the name of tennis player Ernests Gulbis. This online version now been corrected.