Sunday, February 19, 2012

Serving sensationally, Raonic repeats in SAP Open

   SAN JOSE -- Don't be deceived by Milos Raonic's modest seven aces and 62 percent conversion rate on first serves.
   The 21-year-old Canadian star put on the most dominant serving display in memory Sunday.
   Dropping only four points on his serve, the third-seeded Raonic wore down unseeded Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan 7-6 (3), 6-2 at HP Pavilion for his second straight SAP Open title.
   Raonic won 28 of 31 points, including 17 straight, on his serve in the first set and 16 of 17 in the second set. He never surrendered more than one point in a service game. 
   Asked if he could serve any better, Raonic said: "I don't think so. I hope so. I served pretty flawlessly all week but sometimes lost focus on the next shot."  
   Raonic, who won his first career ATP World Tour title last year in San Jose, became the seventh player in the Open Era (since 1968) to win back-to-back championships in the Bay Area tournament. All the others -- Andy Murray (2006-07), Andy Roddick (2004-05), Mark Philippoussis (1999-2000), Pete Sampras (1996-97), John McEnroe (1978-79) and Stan Smith (1968-69) -- are multiple Grand Slam singles champions or finalists.
   There is no reason -- other than injuries -- to think Raonic won't wind up in Grand Slam finals, too. He missed two months after undergoing hip surgery last July and withdrew from a Davis Cup singles match eight days ago with knee pain. Raonic said it was "a big sigh of relief" that he would be able to defend his SAP Open crown.
   Largely because of the hip operation, it took Raonic 11 months to win his second ATP title (Chennai, India, in the first week of this year). It took him only six weeks to win his third.
   "I'm a much better tennis player this year," said Raonic, who's 11-1 this season and the first two-time winner of 2012 on the ATP circuit. "I'm hitting well from the baseline and constructing points. My tennis sense is better. I understand my game and my opponent's game better."
   Raonic, ranked 35th, improved to 9-0 in the SAP Open without losing a set. He held his serve 42 of 43 times last year and 41 of 42 times this year.   
   Istomin, a 25-year-old Russia native who fell to 0-2 in ATP finals, said the 6-foot-5 Raonic's serve is the best he has faced.
   "It's harder, he's taller, and the ball is jumping high. Five times I saw 145 (on the radar gun). It's really difficult to face this kind of serve," said Istomin, an SAP Open semifinalist in 2010 and quarterfinalist last year.
   In the middle of the first set, Raonic uncorked a 150-mph ace that Istomin challenged for the heck of it.
   "I didn't see it at all," Istomin, who rose 12 spots to No. 49 in the world with his runner-up finish, admitted with a chuckle. "That's why I challenged, to be sure it was in or no."
   But Raonic is hardly a one-dimensional player. Like a cagey veteran pitcher, he changes speeds on  his serve, often slicing the ball wide in the deuce court. He moves surprisingly well for his size, has a powerful baseline game and can volley deftly. He says his return of serve needs the most work. 
   Not that Raonic needed any help during the week, but he had plenty.
   Gael Monfils, seeded second last year and first this year, withdrew with an injury in Raonic's half of the draw for the second consecutive year. Second seeded Andy Roddick, a three-time SAP Open champion, struggled with hamstring and ankle injuries and lost to Istomin in the quarterfinals.
   Raonic also was fresher for Sunday's 3 p.m. final than Istomin. Raonic beat U.S. teenager Ryan Harrison in straight sets in 1 hour, 18 minutes Saturday afternoon, whereas Istomin labored for 2 hours, 20 minutes to beat fifth-seeded Julien Benneteau on Saturday night.  
   In the final, Istomin held his serve throughout the first set to force a tiebreaker. Raonic bolted to a 6-1 lead and held on to improve his career tiebreaker record in the tournament to 8-0. After drawing a first-round bye this year, he won one tiebreaker in each of his four matches.
   Errors crept into Istomin's game in the second set, when he was broken at 1-2 and 2-5.
   "The first set I was playing really good on my serve," he said. "In the second set, I was a little tired. I had a long match (Saturday night)."
   In doubles, Mark Knowles became the first player 40 years or older to win an ATP title since McEnroe, at 47, captured the 2006 SAP Open doubles crown with Jonas Bjorkman.
   The fourth-seeded team of Knowles, a 40-year-old Bahamian and Sacramento Capitals veteran in World TeamTennis, and Belgium's Xavier Malisse outlasted unseeded Kevin Anderson of South Africa and Frank Moser of Germany 6-4, 1-6, 10-5 tiebreak. 
   "To be in a sentence with John McEnroe is pretty cool," said Knowles, who won his 55th career ATP doubles title (tied for 15th in the Open Era and fourth among active players). "I’ll take that. I didn’t realize that. To win a title at 40 years old is far beyond anything I could have dreamed of. When you first turn pro, you never really dream of playing 20-plus years on tour.
   "I’ve been fortunate enough to stay fairly healthy and have had some great partners who have helped me win a lot of titles over the years. It’s helped me to have a family. I spend a lot of time with my wife and three kids. I really enjoy tennis a lot more than I did in the beginning when it was just myself."
   Knowles has won a doubles crown for 13 straight years, including 2001 in San Jose (with former Capitals teammate Brian MacPhie), and every year since 1993 except 1999.
  "It’s amazing," he said. "You don’t really keep track of that until somebody points it out. Now I’m a little bit bummed I didn’t win that one title."
   Malisse, a relative youngster at 31, played in his fourth straight doubles final in California. He was the runner-up in last year's SAP Open (with Alejandro Falla of Colombia, beating top-seeded Knowles and Michal Mertinak of Slovakia in the semifinals) and won titles at Indian Wells last March (with Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine) and Los Angeles (with Knowles) last July.
   "Maybe I should move to California," Malisse joked.   
   WTA tour -- Top-seeded Liezel Huber of Houston and Lisa Raymond of Wayne, Pa., breezed past unseeded Raquel Kops-Jones, a former Cal All-American from Fresno, and Abigail Spears of San Diego 6-3, 6-1 to win the $2,168,400 Qatar Total Open in Doha.
   Huber, 35, became the 15th player in the Open Era to win at least 50 WTA doubles titles. Raymond, 38, tied Jana Novotna for sixth place on that list with 76 crowns.
   Huber and Raymond reached the final of last year's Bank of the West Classic at Stanford, falling to Victoria Azarenka and Maria Kirilenko.
   Women's Challenger --  Fourth-seeded Maria Sanchez of Modesto and Yasmin Schnack of Elk Grove in the Sacramento area won their second doubles title of the year, beating third-seeded Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania and Valeria Solovieva of Russia 6-4, 6-3 in the $25,000 City of Surprise (Ariz.) Women's Tennis Classic. Schnack also won a doubles crown this year with Whitney Jones of St. Louis.
   Fifth-seeded Michelle Larcher de Brito, a former Capital from Portugal, won the Surprise singles title with a 6-1 6-3 victory over eighth-seeded Claire Feuerstein of France.
   College -- Cal freshman Zsofi Susanyi was named to the all-tournament team at No. 2 singles after helping the Bears reach the semifinals of the ITA National Women's Team Indoor Championship in Charlottesville. Susanyi, from Hungary, also was chosen as the Pacific-12 Conference Player of the Week for Feb. 6-12.

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