This is what the reinvention of Milos Raonic is supposed to be about – adding different dimensions to his game so that he could compete with the best players in the world.
So on Sunday, Raonic learned a lesson that he probably knew before he ever stepped on the court against 12-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal: That progress is sometimes measured in small steps and there will be considerable ups and downs along the way. After a mostly up week in which Raonic qualified for his first-ever ATP Masters 1000 tournament final, Raonic had a mostly down day, losing in straight sets to Nadal in a one-sided and mostly anticlimactic final of the Rogers Cup.
Raonic was bidding to become the first Canadian to win the title since Bob Bedard in 1958, but Nadal had other ideas. In winning 6-2, 6-2, Nadal was in complete control right from the start of the match. He broke Raonic's serve in the third and fifth games of the first set and lost just a single point on his own service in rolling to an easy early lead.
Afterward, Raonic said that few people really understood how much time and effort he's invested in getting to this stage of his career, noting: "It takes a lot of time and effort that's really not seen by anybody really other than the people that are close to you."
"There's a lot of things, a lot of steps, a lot of professionalism that is not optional really to get to this level, stuff I really pride myself in, I put a lot of emphasis on...To do it here [make the final] is really special for me, but also it's very motivating for the next steps to sort of know that I've made that step to where I want to be. It makes me want to push harder and work more to make the next step to go down that line and try to get as close as I can to my goals."
In the second set, Nadal broke Raonic right away and looked as if he might blast him off the court in under an hour. But Raonic's level started to improve, and there actually was a moment in the fourth game, when Nadal fell behind love-40 on his own serve when the crowd started to get into it, cheering Raonic on. Alas, Nadal slammed the door shut right away, winning five consecutive points, holding serve and Raonic never came closer the rest of the way.
The match took one hour and eight minutes to play.
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 came through the tournament in good health, but isn't looking any further ahead than his next stop, the Western & Southern Open, which is already underway in Cincinnati.
"When I'm here, I'm thinking about Montréal. Then I will work thinking about Cincinnati. Then when I will be in New York, I will work thinking about the US Open," he said. "I always think tournament by tournament. And the routine always is similar. You have to set a goal for yourself about the things that you really want to improve. I am doing things very well this week on hard courts. That is important example that I can play this way in the future. That gives me confidence, that if I keep working this way, I can have good results playing very aggressive...I [am] happy with that. I need to keep going this way."
Nadal has a 48-3 match record this season and is a perfect 10-0 on hard courts, his least favorite 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-favorite.
Nadal is also 4-0 against Raonic, who he defeated 6-4, 6-0 in Barcelona earlier this year.
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. With his finalist appearance here, Raonic will move into the ATP's Top 10 ranking for the first time in his career Monday, when the new rankings come out. Raonic advanced to the final by defeating fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil in a three-set semi-final Saturday. Pospisil is expected to see his ranking climb from 71 to around 40 in those same rankings.
Both are entered in Cincinnati, the last significant hard-court tune-up 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.
"I know that you sort of think that today's tournament is over, sort of relax after this. I play within 48 hours for sure in Cincinnati. Today I have probably about two, three more hours of recovery to do, which is longer than the match. Tomorrow I'll probably have the same thing to get myself in the best shape I can for that event."
This is the 10th consecutive year in which one of the so-called Big Four of men's tennis has won the tournament, or since Federer won in 2004. From there, the title passed to Nadal, Federer again, Djokovic, Nadal, Andy Murray twice, Djokovic twice and now Nadal again for the third time.