A new year, the same finalists, a different result. Milos Raonic has reversed last year's Brisbane International result by upstaging top seed and defending champion Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4 to win his eighth career title and first Roy Emerson Trophy.
Raonic was the support act in a 2015 finals show that was all about Federer, of whom a grand fuss was made when he registered his 1000th career match victory to prevail in three sets. But this year's lower-key yet still hugely satisfying celebration was the Canadian's, after what was just his second defeat of the 17-time major winner in 11 attempts.
While Federer was not as sharp as expected, it was a fine performance from the big-serving Raonic, whose ranking dipped 10 places to 14th due to foot and back injuries from May last year. He has long been spoken of among the next generation expected to challenge for major titles, but a semi-final appearance at 2014 Wimbledon has been his best grand slam result so far.
Raonic said the result does "great things" for him heading into the Australian Open, where he reached the quarter-finals last year. "For myself it signifies within the team how concrete and good the work we're doing is. At the same time, with the difficulties I've had last year, it's maybe a good way for me to show the other guys I will face going in Melbourne (that)I've got my stuff back together and I can play some good tennis again."
Asked if he felt ready to win the Open or at least be a serious grand slam contender in 2016, he said: "Yeah, definitely. Sort of two steps: Being able to step up and play great for two weeks, which I believe I can definitely do.Then there is the aspect of if you want to compete to be the best player in the world, that's about playing a good about 30 weeks. That's maybe another step away, but I definitely feel I have it within myself to step up with play great tennis for two weeks."
Federer admitted he struggled with his serve and defensive game, having felt "one step too slow" on legs wearied by the illness that compromised his preparation. "Considering the week I've had, I'm actually quite happy," said the world No.3. "That's why I'm not down or anything or disappointed. If I would've known I would've made the finals five days ago I would've been unbelievably happy.
"I've still got a cough and the throat is a bit weird. Definitely got to make sure I get over it as quickly as possible. As long as I keep on playing and doing all that stuff it's not going to go away faster. So I am going to rest up tomorrow. Also have to see, but then probably hit the practice courts again. Practice you can manage how hard you're going to do it. Obviously health is No. 1.
"The good thing is the off-season was great. I have a base there, so I think within three, four days I should be back at 100 per cent, if things progress normally, which I think they are now, because 90 per cent is passed now, which is a good thing."
What will be the only Australian Open lead-up event for both players was Federer's first with Raonic's former coach Ivan Ljubicic in his entourage, the Swiss star's long-time mentor Severin Luthi due to join the team in Melbourne on Tuesday.
"I think it was very comfortable, very natural first week for us. Severin is going to arrive on Tuesday to join the team now," Federer said. "So I'm very happy how the first week went.. We were both thrilled that I got to play as many matches as I did here this week, because we saw how bad I was doing on Tuesday. So still been a good first week."
In a 41-minute first set, Raonic's improved execution at the net was quickly apparent, with his off-forehand also proving particularly damaging from the back of the court. With a first-serve percentage of less than 50 per cent, Federer was struggling to stay with his younger opponent when Raonic left the court for a medical time-out at the end of the third game.
The Canadian returned to serve four double-faults in the next game, Federer could not convert what would be his sole break point of the match. Down 30-40 at 3-3, Federer pushed a forehand wide to give his opponent the advantage he would not relinquish. The errors were mounting for the Swiss champion, whose last was a backhand return that sailed long. All over in 89 minutes. Raonic's victory party this time.
"I'd like to congratulate Milos on a great start to the year here in Brisbane," Federer, who is yet to commit to return for the opening week of 2017, said at the presentation graced by Emerson's proxy Rod Laver. "You played great already here last year, I thought that final was epic on many levels for us both, and now this year you got it. You deserve it, well played, and good luck at the Australian Open."