No. 1 seed Juan Martin del Potro won his third title of the season with a two-set victory over Milos Raonic in a nail-biting Japan Open final on Sunday.
Del Potro, a last-minute fill-in for injured Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, defeated the third-seeded Raonic 7-6 (7-5), 7-5 at Ariake Tennis Forest Park to win the tournament for the first time.
Appearing in his 22nd career final, world No. 7 del Potro was runnerup to Tomas Berdych in the 2008 Japan Open. He had lost to Raonic in August at Montreal in their only previous career meeting.
“Thank you for inviting me to play,” said del Potro, who also won in Rotterdam and Washington this year. “I was a wild card, and it was the only chance for me to play in this tournament.”
“I think I played really well,” the Argentine said following his sixth Tokyo appearance. “The last two games of the match, I broke his serve, taking all his first serves, and playing good points.
“It’s normal to feel nervous when you close a match to win a title, but I played a good point and closed a fantastic week for me.”
Raonic, last week’s winner in Bangkok, lost in the final for the second straight year after his defeat to Kei Nishikori in 2012. Against del Potro, Raonic lost serve for the first time all week on just the second break point he faced here.
“There’s not really too much to be down about,” the 22-year-old Raonic said. “The opportunities I created, I played well on.
“Later in the match to break me, he hit four winners. Not really much I could have done better in that situation.”
The match was as close as advertised, a war of attrition between arguably the tournament’s two best players.
Raonic had eight of his 17 aces in the first set, never facing break point. Del Petro fired four aces of his own, and saved three break points as the set went into the tiebreak.
Del Potro caught a rare break at 5-4, when Raonic double-faulted to hand him set point. Raonic fended del Petro off once, but del Potro aced the next point to win the set.
The second set was more of the same, with neither relinquishing serve, absolutely refusing to give in.
But the match swung in del Potro’s favor at 5-5 as he won the first break point of the afternoon, backing Raonic into a corner the Canadian would not come out of.
In the next game, del Potro converted his second match point from 40-30, ripping a forehand past Raonic at the net to crown himself the new champion.
“You have to be focused, waiting for the chance,” del Potro said. “Milos served really well during the match, but I took the opportunity in the second-to-last game which I broke.
“You have to be patient more than the other matches. In the tiebreak, anything can happen. He made a double fault in the most important moment of the match, and then I made an ace to close the first set.”
While he saw his eight-match winning streak come to an end, the 11th-ranked Raonic is happy with his recent surge in performance. He is 10th in the race to London for next month’s season-ending ATP World Tour Finals.
“I think the improvement in the rankings is just icing on the cake,” he said.