The looming question before Sunday's final in the Masters 1000 event in Montreal seemed to be how Rafael Nadal would handle that atomic serve of Milos Raonic. The better question: How would Raonic handle Rafa’s serve?
The answer to the more prescient question: Not very well.
You can put a lot of that down to Raonic’s continuing education in this game. There’s a reason the guy burst on the scene like a supernova in 2011, but then began spinning his wheels -- albeit at a very high level -- not long after affirming his top-10 potential. The world now knows, even if it did not before, Raonic has to improve his return game if he hopes to penetrate deep into the top 10.
Also, Raonic surely felt a lot of pressure as a first-time Master-level finalist playing in front of his Canadian countrymen on a historic occasion (the first time a Canadian reached the final of a Masters event). But the more compelling takeaway is that Nadal looked sharper and more formidable than expected in his 6-2, 6-2 victory -- stronger and tougher than any other contender, including top-seeded and No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
That hurtful loss gave Nadal two weeks off at a time when he’s traditionally accustomed to leaving it all on the court and then trying to find the motivation, legs and mental freshness to challenge at the US Open. We know how that’s worked out in the past: Although Nadal has been at least as far as the semis in each of the past four years, the persistent feeling is that the American major has been the toughest nut for him to crack.
That probably has had less to do with the nature of the hard courts (Nadal has acquitted himself pretty well on the hard courts at, say, Indian Wells) or the character of the US Open (he’s not the sort of snob who looks down his nose at the New York crowd), than with the state of Nadal’s legs and mind.
It’s hard to see the US Open in “must win” terms when you’ve just won Roland Garros. The success of American players like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and John McEnroe -- all No. 1 players as well as high performers in New York -- tended to overshadow the shortcomings of their peers from overseas toward the end of the long, hot summer.
Given that, Federer’s success in New York has been truly remarkable -- especially in contrast to the record of Nadal (Federer won five straight titles in New York; Nadal has won one title and lost in the final on just one other occasion).
But this year it’s apt to be different. Nadal has pronounced his knees fine, and this week he even dispensed with that once ubiquitous strap he’s worn on his knee. He was alert and opportunistic in Montreal all week, and his commanding performance in the final reminded some of us of the outstanding factor that drove Nadal’s win in New York in 2010: an ultra-effective if never overpowering serve.
When he won the US Open, even Nadal was hard put to explain why his serve suddenly seemed so lethal. It was deadly against Raonic as well Sunday. Everyone knows Nadal is going to have to meet returners of a much higher caliber than Raonic if he hopes to win the US Open.
That’s all right, there’s plenty of time to mull over all that. Right now, Nadal is truly looking -- and playing -- like a new man. And that’s a danger sign for one and all.