The setting: lush Rock Creek Park, a muggy Sunday afternoon, six kilometres directly north of the White House.
The stage: an all-Canadian men's tennis final in the American capital, Milos Raonic versus Vasek Pospisil, the first time that two Canadians have met in the title match of an Association of Tennis Professionals event, in this case the mid-rank Citi Open.
The scene: Raonic attacked a somewhat-drained Pospisil immediately as the 3 p.m. ET match began, the temperature near 30 C, with the humidity making it feeling closer to 40 C on the hard court. Pospisil served to start, and Raonic took the first two points. Raonic took the third with a cross-court forehand that registered at 206 kilometres per hour, Pospisil lunging for the ball but unable to reach it. Raonic broke Pospisil, and Pospisil could not make up the lost ground.
Pospisil played twice on Saturday, the end of one match, in the morning that had been interrupted Friday night by rain, and then another full match, his semifinal – whereas Raonic had cruised through a week in Washington. On Sunday, Pospisil was too often a fraction off. Sunday was Raonic's best showing in the tournament, more authoritative, fewer unforced errors.
The final was 6-1, 6-4 Raonic, the sixth victory of his career. And for both, the success in Washington sets the stage of a happy homecoming, as Rogers Cup starts Monday in Toronto. It was at the Rogers Cup a year ago where Raonic and Pospisil met in the semifinals, a breakthrough for both, with Raonic winning a close match.
In the past 18 months, years of work, planning, and investment have bloomed, elevating Canada on the map of global tennis. A turning point was in early February, 2013, when Canada's men pulled off an upset victory in Vancouver against Spain in international Davis Cup action. Now, Canada has 20-year-old Eugenie Bouchard at No. 7 in the world, 23-year-old Raonic at No. 6, and 24-year-old Pospisil at No. 28.
The players reached their early teens a decade ago when Tennis Canada was overhauling itself. Pospisil and Raonic grew up under the watchful eyes of immigrant parents. Pospisil, his family from Czech Republic, played on public courts in the small city of Vernon in the British Columbia interior, coached by his dad, named, by chance, Milos. The blue-collar family then cobbled funds together to relocate to Vancouver. "He proved I wasn't a crazy dreamer," Milos Pospisil told The Globe earlier this year.
In the Toronto suburbs, the Raonic family – his mom Vesna and dad Dusan both engineers – had arrived from Montenegro when Milos was 3. "It was not an easy decision," Vesna told The Globe in 2011. "But the situation around Montenegro was changing. We thought for our children, and for us, we needed to go to Canada." At 8, Milos started out at the Blackmore Tennis Club in Richmond Hill. Dusan got court time for Milos at 6 a.m. or after 9 p.m., when it was cheaper.
The two first played each other as teens, in Edmonton in U-14 competition. Pospisil won. "Vasek won every single time," joked Raonic after winning Sunday of their early matches.
Raonic has a dry sense of humour, an analytic mind, and a mechanical game. The Washington Post, curious about the hotshot, asked why on Saturday, and Raonic answered, "I'm the son of two engineers, so everything is a numbers and calculation game."
The investment of Tennis Canada paid off. At the Rogers Cup, the fact Canada has top 10 players in Bouchard and Raonic, playing in their hometowns, is a boon to ticket sales, sponsor dollars and TV coverage. The final in Washington amplifies the homecoming for Raonic and Pospisil. The win for Raonic bolsters his building confidence, and Pospisil is buoyed too, extending success after his doubles win at Wimbledon a month ago.
On Sunday afternoon in Washington – a smaller tournament on the annual calendar of tennis – the internationally minded ATP promoted the Canadian story. A PR man early on Sunday afternoon huddled with ATP photographers to ensure a Canadian flag was involved in the on-court shots of Raonic and Pospisil before and after their match.
Previous winners in Washington include Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, and Andy Roddick. Despite no Americans playing 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 payday, following his cheque for about $590,000 from his semifinal appearance against Federer at Wimbledon in early July. Washington pushes Raonic's 2014 earnings past $2-million for the first time. Pospisil, for his work in Washington, collects $142,650, increasing his year-to-date earnings by nearly 50 per cent.
After Toronto comes Cincinnati, another big 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.