It was shortly after Wimbledon that Milos Raonic really settled down and went back to school for a month or so, working with a new coach, Ivan Ljubicic, in the hopes of improving some of the gaps that remain in his overall tennis game.
Raonic also participated in an unscheduled tennis clinic Sunday that happened to coincide with the final of the 2013 Rogers Cup.
Rafael Nadal, still one of the classiest and most accomplished players of his generation, laid an old-fashioned beat down on Raonic that illustrated just how far Raonic still needs to go if he wants to crack professional tennis's elite inner circle.
Nadal breezed to 6-2, 6-2 verdict over Raonic in a match that lasted just 68 minutes and was never in doubt. After a mostly up week in which Raonic qualified for his first-ever ATP Masters 1000 tournament final and cracked the top-10 for the first time, Raonic had a mostly down day. His primary weapon, his serve, let him down continually and his return of serve, which at different times this week showed signs of improvement, was not good either.
In the first set, Nadal lost just a single point on his service game and was really in trouble only one time in the match. It came in the fourth game of the second set, when he was already up a break, but fell behind love-40 on his own serve. But Nadal promptly played his way out of that hole, won five consecutive points, held serve and Raonic never came closer the rest of the way.
For Nadal, the victory was his 25th ATP Masters 1000 tour title and fourth this year.
He lost to Novak Djokovic in the final at Monte Carlo and skipped Miami to rest his achy knees after winning the week before at Indian Wells.
Nadal has a 48-3 match record this season and is a perfect 10-0 on hard courts, his least favourite surface. No matter what happens next week in Cincinnati, where he is seeded to face Roger Federer in the quarter-finals and has an exceedingly difficult draw, he will go into the U.S. Open as no worse than the co-favourite. Nadal will move up to No.3 in the rankings Monday and has a good chance to reclaim the No.1 spot in men's tennis by the end of the year.
Nadal was his usual charming and gracious self, when asked to deconstruct Raonic's game after the match. Nadal suggested that Raonic's serve gives him a chance to be in the top 10 for a long time, but he needs to work on "the mental part and the game from the baseline, to try to play the right way the important points tactically.
"I think he will do it. He's still young."
Curiously, Nadal's analysis almost exactly duplicated that of Bob Bedard, the last Canadian men's player to win a national championship, something that happened back in 1958. Bedard was on hand to watch the match and made two points that others have stressed as well: For Raonic to rise further in the ranks, he will need to improve his return game and his mobility.
Canada's Vasek Pospisil, who lost to Raonic in Saturday's semi-final in a third-set tie-breaker, does get around the court more smoothly and possesses a strong serve, though it is not nearly as lethal as Raonic's when Raonic's is on. But on Sunday, it betrayed him against a player, Nadal, who doesn't need a lot of help.
"Well, was the perfect situation for me, no?" Nadal said. "I had the break very early in both sets. That's a lot of calm. I only had one game that I had trouble on my serve, the rest I played very comfortable.
"I did a lot of things well. My return was huge this afternoon. I returned a few first serves of him in important moments, decisive. Then I think he play with more mistakes than usual. That's the real thing. That's helped me. But, you know, thinking about myself, I did lot of things very well."
Yes, he did.
This is the 10th consecutive year in which one of the so-called Big Four of men's tennis has won the Rogers Cup, or since Roger Federer's first win in 2004. From there, the title passed to Nadal in 2005, Federer again, Djokovic, Nadal, Andy Murray twice, Djokovic twice and now Nadal again for the third time. Nadal's hard-court breakthrough came here eight years ago. Among all of his achievements in the sport, it sounds as though he genuinely ranks that victory among his greatest moments, because it proved to the tennis world at large that he was more than just a clay-court specialist.
"Montreal, playing against a big champion like [Andre] Agassi here in the final, was my first victory on a hard-court tournament, and a Masters 1000, is unforgettable memory for me," Nadal said. "I love this tournament. I really enjoy when I have the chance to be here."
For Raonic, the sting of Sunday's loss will be mitigated by the runner-up's prize of $258,350 (U.S.), plus 600 valuable ATP ranking points. Pospisil, meanwhile, added 360 points with his semi-final appearance and is expected to see his ranking climb to about 40 from 71.
Both are entered in Cincinnati, the last significant hard-court tuneup before the U.S. Open. Raonic is the 12th seed in Cincinnati and will open against an American wild-card entry, Jack Sock. Pospisil has drawn the 15th seed, Frenchman Gilles Simon, in the opening round.
"You live and learn," Raonic said. "It's an experience that I'm sure I can learn a lot from and I'm sure I will."
Raonic was prepared to concede that there is a vast difference between the top four in men's tennis and top 10 – and that his loss was a reflection of that gap.
"Yeah, they're a step ahead," Raonic said. "But I think I can do much better than I did today. I'll say that. I don't think those guys, by score lines, are that much ahead. I think it's really about myself wishing I could have dealt better with that situation, and I know I will be able to deal with it better in the future."