There was no escape hatch for Milos Raonic to climb through this time.
Facing his third top 20 player in a row after saving multiple match points in his previous two matches, the 21-year-old Raonic fell behind early to Japan's Kei Nishikori and this time could not fight all the way back, losing a 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-0 verdict in Tokyo on Sunday.
The third set result was ugly, and the 22-year-old Nishikori broke Raonic's feared serve four times in the match after the Canadian had held serve on 42 of 43 occasions entering the match. But it was a historic match as well, as Nishikori, a national sports figure in Japan, became the first from his country to win the 40-year-old Japan Open in outplaying the higher-ranked Canadian.
"I'd thought the Gods were against me at this event in the past," said Nishikori after collecting $308,000 and a year's supply of Corona beer for the win.
It was the youngest final of the ATP season between two "next generation" players, and also a collision between two players who have put their respective countries on the tennis map in recent years by their results.
Raonic towered over the smaller Nishikori, but the Japanese player, ranked No. 17 in the world compared to No. 14 for Raonic, had the bigger game on the day. Having seen Raonic fight from match point down to beat two top 10 players, Janko Tipsarevic (No. 9) and Andy Murray (No. 3), Nishikori came into the match having clearly done his homework.
He denied Raonic access to the wicked inside-out forehand that figured so prominently in the upset win over Murray, kept the Canadian from getting to the net as frequently as he had against the Scot and used a short diagonal passing shot from the backhand side to great effect. In the first set, at times Raonic seemed a little baffled by his opponent's speed and tactical smarts, and uncharacteristically struggled to command his serve throughout after starting the match with a blazing 228 kilometre-and-hour ace.
There were only 13 more aces from Raonic on the day. He did win the second set and looked to have momentum, but it was all Nishikori in the final set, who was able throughout the match to take the ball early and keep Raonic on his heels. Down 2-0 in the third, Raonic clunked an easy volley at the net, a sign that he wasn't going to be able to mount another comeback on this day.
The final serving numbers told the tale; Raonic won only a mediocre 71 per cent of his first serve points, very low for him, and a dreadful 38 per cent of his second serve points. Nishikori, who makes up for the lack of big weapons with uncommon quickness around the court, had 10 break point chances in the match.
Raonic talked at Wimbledon after losing to Sam Querrey about learning how to win when he wasn't playing his best. For a time on Sunday, this looked like that would be the story of the match against Nishikori, at least until the Japanese star steamrolled his opponent in the final set.
Clutching a bouquet of yellow roses presented by 1973 Japan Open champion Ken Rosewall that he joked were destined for his coach Galo Blanco on his birthday, a gracious Raonic, who referred to his love for sushi that has followed him "all the way back home in Toronto," complimented Nishikori in the post-match remarks but also didn't seem discouraged by his best result in three years at the event and sixth career ATP final.
"I think we're making progress by this result," he said.
Raonic was favoured against Nishikori after the exciting come-from-behind win over Murray on Saturday. The combination of Nishkori's smarts, the supportive if not raucous pro-Nishikori crowd and the challenge of finding the same emotional level against Nishikori as he had against Murray proved too much for the youngster from Thornhill.
The good news was that his much-improved return of serve was still there against Nishikori, clearly a building block as Raonic takes aim at the top 10.
Raonic still has an outside chance of qualifying for the prestigious ATP World Finals in London in early November featuring the eight top players on the tour, but would need an excellent result at the Shanghai Masters this week to have much of a chance. All the best players in the world, except injured Rafa Nadal, are on hand after being split among smaller events last week.
Raonic starts off against a qualifier and is in tough in the same half of the draw as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic, who met in the final of the China Open on Sunday with Djokovic winning in straight sets.