In 2010, a 19-year-old Milos Raonic and 20-year-old Vasek Pospisil teamed up in Toronto to defeat the all-star team of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, 5-7, 6-3, [10-8], on the opening night of the tournament. 13 years later, Raonic and Pospisil, both in the twilight of their playing careers and returning from long injury layoffs, stepped on the same court to play their respective first-round singles matches at the National Bank Open presented by Rogers, showing glimpses of the form that propelled them into the upper ranks of men’s tennis during their prime.
Playing in just his third tournament since returning from a two-year absence, Raonic rolled back the years in what may be his final tournament on home soil, producing a serving masterclass to upset World No. 10 Frances Tiafoe, 6-7(12), 7-6(4), 6-3, in an enthralling two-hour, 44-minute clash on Monday night.
The 32-year-old hit 37 aces — just one shy of his personal record in a three-set match — to earn his first Top 10 victory since August 2020 and to set up a second-round clash on Wednesday with Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel, against whom he has yet to drop a set in two previous encounters. The Canadian also avenged his loss to Tiafoe, who beat him in Toronto five years ago.
“The thing that I’ve always said is it doesn’t matter how much you do the right things. You never know when things kind of click and come together for you. For me, it’s incredibly special for it to be here,” Raonic said in his post-match press conference. “[If] that match goes a different way, I think it still would have been a positive stepping stone to the progress I’m making. Obviously, I got so caught up in my own thing. But then when I saw my family’s reaction in some videos after that, that was probably the most important. That embrace between my mom and dad — that’s probably the thing that goes the furthest to me and means the most to me.”
The road to get to this point, however, was far from smooth sailing.
Tiafoe, who was fresh off a quarter-final appearance in Washington last week and has already won two titles in his career-best season, raced out of the blocks, testing Raonic’s mobility and getting an early read on the Canadian’s big serve to break in the opening game. But while Tiafoe served for the set at 5-4, Raonic took advantage of a few loose errors from the American to break back at love, much to the delight of the Canadian crowd.
Raonic and Tiafoe soon found themselves embroiled in one of the best tiebreaks in recent memory, with neither player refusing to budge on serve. In the end, Tiafoe was able to strike first, saving three set points with some stunning defense under pressure and chasing down a high net cord to win the 20-minute, 26-point tiebreak in dramatic fashion.
For those who were wondering what happened, which you can see in the video above, Tiafoe ran from behind the baseline to hit a low cross-court winner past Raonic, but the American ran into the net post before the ball bounced twice, leaving Raonic to believe that he had won the point.
“Chair umpire Fergus Murphy initially called the net touch but quickly corrected himself and called the point for Tiafoe because the ninth seed touched the net outside of the singles stick,” read an explanation on the ATP Tour’s website. “Since Murphy's initial call and correction did not impact the winner, the shot stood and was not replayed as a let.”
“I’m not necessarily the best player involving the crowd. I just keep my head down and I do my thing, and I think that got everybody riled up, everybody excited, everybody more into the match,” Raonic said. “And I think that just gave me some momentum and some force going forward.”
Raonic, to his credit, didn’t let that controversial (but correct) ending to the first set break his resolve. He continued to go toe-to-toe with Tiafoe on serve and recovered from an early mini-break down in the ensuing tiebreak with some heavy hitting to send the match to a decider.
Having chipped away at the American’s lead and confidence in the baseline battles, the Canadian earned a crucial break in the second game of the final set, saved a total of six break points (four of them with aces), and held his nerve on serve to secure one of the most memorable victories of his career.
In the second match of the night session, Italian qualifier Matteo Arnaldi knocked out home favourite Vasek Pospisil, 6-4, 6-4, to earn his first main-draw victory at the Masters 1000 level.
Pospisil, who reached the semifinals of this event in Montreal in 2013, jumped out to an early 2-0 lead with some powerful hitting and had opportunities to either consolidate or break again, but the 33-year-old Vernon-native couldn’t find the consistency required to keep up with the 22-year-old Arnaldi, who is projected to break into the world’s Top 60 next week after scoring three wins in as many days in Toronto.