The Canadian flag flapped wildly in the bluster atop the stadium, while tiebreak tension knotted the arms of the nation's best on the court below.
Immobilized by nerves during some points, Milos Raonic was inspired on match point. Raonic stabbed a defensive backhand to prolong the point and ripped a running forehand to complete a tense 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4) triumph over Vasek Pospisil in the first all-Canadian Masters semifinal.
Bouncing off the blue court with exuberance, Raonic landed as the first Canadian to reach the final since 1958 in a result that reverberates beyond Montreal. The 22-year-old Raonic will become the first Canadian man to crack the Top 10 when the new ATP rankings are released on Monday.
An unpredictable bluster, familiarity between one-time doubles partners born six months apart and raw nerves exposed by the pressure of a milestone match conspired to create some ragged play. The Davis Cup teammates delivered 90 aces en route to the semifinals, but combined for seven break points in the first five games. Pressure provoked different reactions: At times it left Pospisil frantic and Raonic frozen.
An over-anxious Pospisil framed a forehand and Raonic landed a return on the baseline to break for 3-2. Serving for the set, Raonic, wishing a return would float long, was fooled by the shot's spin and unprepared when the ball dropped inside the baseline. He shrugged off the lapse, slamming his fifth ace to snatch a first set in which Pospisil committed 17 unforced errors to 14 for Raonic.
Putting more balls in play, Pospisil pressured at the start of the second set. A double fault and errant forehand gave the world No. 71 his first break and a 2-0 lead. Raonic's sledgehammer serve was the most explosive weapon on court, but the rangy Pospisil is the quicker mover and was often the better player during rallies. Curling a crosscourt forehand pass that eluded a stumbling Raonic, the wild card launched into a spinning leap after leveling. Raonic, who only surrendered serve six times in reaching the semifinals, dropped serve twice and did not hit an ace in a sluggish second set, while Pospisil looked energized.
Seeking stress relief, Raonic embarked on a seven-minute bathroom break, returning to crack two aces to open the decider. Tension ratcheted with Raonic serving at 3-all, 30-30 as Pospisil attacked net and had a good look at the open court for a break point, but pushed a shaky forehand volley wide as Raonic worked through the deuce game to hold.
The crowd greeted both men with a standing ovation to start the tie breaker and given the stakes, you can understand why both guys were gagging in the breaker. Raonic hit a backhand pass for his second mini-break and a 3-0 lead only to see his right arm stiffen like a frozen rope. He dumped a double fault and saw Pospisil punish his 82 MPH second serve for 3-all. Raonic hit about a dozen serves in excess of 140 MPH in the match, but tightened amid tie break turbulence spinning a couple of sub-85 MPH second serves.
At 4-3, Raonic danced to his left and lashed an inside-out forehand winner. Match point escalated into one of the longest rallies of the match culminating with Raonic stabbing a backhand to stay alive then running to his right and zapping a forehand that a lunging Pospisil could not control; his volley died in the net.
Projected to rise to about No. 40, Pospisil's upside will be even higher if he can manage his nerve and sharpen his shot selection. He hit more aces (14 to 9), earned more break points, defended his second serve a bit better and was more dangerous on the move. But credit Raonic for withstanding the pressure and a determined opponent, who had won three of their prior four meetings. The pair will reunite next month when they try to lead Canada into the Davis Cup final.