An hour after Milos Raonic tramped through an all-Canadian final in the American capital, he lingered on court, the glass bowl Citi Open trophy cradled in his left arm and a Canadian flag draped over his right shoulder. With a sharpie in hand, he signed Canadian flags proffered courtside by excited fans.
Raonic, on the muggy Sunday afternoon, had defeated countryman and long-time friend Vasek Pospisil 6-1, 6-4 in a 67-minute affair. It was the first time two Canadians had met in the final of an Association of Tennis Professionals event, this one a mid-rank tournament.
The red-and-white tennis day in Washington, six kilometres directly up the road from the White House, sets the stage for a homecoming in Toronto at the Rogers Cup, where the main draw begins Monday and a year ago Raonic and Pospisil met in the semi-finals. Raonic won that match narrowly, and it was a breakthrough for both players.
It will be a homecoming in Montreal, too, where No. 7-ranked Eugenie Bouchard from Westmount will be a star attraction after reaching the finals of Wimbledon a month ago.
Raonic first played tennis when he was eight at the Blackmore Tennis Club in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill and grew up in Thornhill. He relishes the return to his hometown. After his Washington win, he spoke of the "rowdy and crazy" atmosphere he expects at the stadium in north Toronto, and has in the past thrived on loud, partisan crowds, such as at Davis Cup wins.
"I expect to do even better," said Raonic in an interview of his Rogers Cup outlook. Asked at a news conference about how the win in Washington differed from five previous wins at smaller ATP events, he said a title previously required a situation tailored for him. "Now," Raonic said. "I believe I can give myself a chance to win any and every tournament."
Since last year's Rogers Cup, the accomplishments have kept on coming, with Raonic most recently reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon. He lost to Roger Federer, a loss for which Raonic was angered by his performance and resolved not to falter in such a moment again. Pospisil, also at Wimbledon, won in doubles, and Washington was Pospisil's first ATP singles final.
The Sunday win elevates Raonic back to No. 6 in the world from No. 7, back to where he was after Wimbledon. Pospisil jumps to No. 28 from No. 36, near his career high of No. 25 early this year.
But for both men, Raonic 6-foot-5 and 23 years old, and Pospisil 6-foot-4 and 24, the challenges become tougher the higher they climb in tennis. In Toronto, Pospisil especially faces many tests. He was run ragged in Washington, a difficult schedule the past three days, and his fatigue showed on Sunday against Raonic.
Pospisil beat strong players to reach the finals in Washington, including No. 5 Tomas Berdych, the top seed here, but the level of competition in Toronto is much stiffer.
Pospisil did not have the luck of the draw and plays Frenchman Richard Gasquet, No. 14 ranked, in the first round – the same man he defeated in the semis in Washington. If Pospisil can win again, he is probably looking at big-serving No. 31 Ivo Karlovic in the second round, No. 10 Andy Murray in the third round, and in the quarter-finals, No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
Repeating his year-ago run to the semis seems unlikely. And should he lose in the first round, his ranking slides to around No. 40 – which illustrates how tough it is hang, never mind rise, in the higher ranks of the pro game.
Fatigue in Washington on Sunday, said Pospisil, was "enough to make a difference." It was clear on the court, where he was too often just a little bit off, whereas Raonic, who ploughed through the draw here with relative ease, played his best of the week.
Raonic attacked Pospisil immediately on Sunday afternoon, the temperature near 30 C, feeling closer to 40 on the hard court with the humidity. Pospisil served to start, and Raonic took the first two points. Raonic seized the third point with a cross-court forehand that registered at 206 kilometres per hour, Pospisil lunging for the tennis ball but unable to reach it. Raonic broke Pospisil, and Pospisil could not make up the lost ground.
"I can only take positive energy out of this," said Pospisil, who has to find a way to rest while playing singles in Toronto and also doubles with American Jack Sock, to keep up their work after winning Wimbledon and then in Atlanta.
Raonic, meanwhile, has a first-round bye in Toronto and would not face a top 10 player until the quarterfinals, where he could meet Berdych, before possibly either of Roger Federer or David Ferrer in the semis. Defending champion Rafael Nadal will not play, his wrist injured.
Pospisil and Raonic have known each other a long time. A decade or so ago was their first match, the U-14 national championship, in Edmonton. Pospisil won, 7-6, 6-4. "Vasek won every single time," joked Raonic of their early matches.
Previous winners in Washington include Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, and Andy Roddick. With no Americans on Sunday, the crowd was still at times boisterous. Pospisil played better in the second set, and fans rallied behind him, but Raonic was always in control, and never broken.
The victory nets Raonic $316,400 (U.S.) – his second-largest pay day, following his cheque for about $590,000 from his Wimbledon semi-final. Washington pushes Raonic's 2014 earnings past $2-million, the first time has exceed that mark. Pospisil collects $142,650, increasing his year-to-date earnings by nearly 50 per cent to about $445,000.
After Toronto comes Cincinnati, another top-level tournament, and then the U.S. Open in New York in late August. The game is upped. The best Canadians are closing in on the top – but the next steps are the most difficult. Progress has been made but there's a long way to go.