In his fourth round match against Nick Kyrgios, Grigor Dimitrov was broken thrice — once while serving for the second set, next due to a lapse in concentration in the third that cost him the set, and finally, when he was serving for the match in the fourth.
“Old habits die hard,” is probably what you are thinking as Dimitrov showed signs of the fragile mentality that has let him down in the biggest moments of his career. But this wasn’t the old Dimitrov. In the rest of the match, the Bulgarian, now 26 years of age and ranked No 3 in the world, showed how much he has developed as a player in the last 12 months.
It was Dimitrov who stepped up on the most crucial points of the match, winning it 7-6(3), 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-6(4) after three hours and 27 minutes of scintillating tennis. Only one point overall (157-156) separated the third seed and the 17th, and it was Dimitrov who proved to be more clutch when it counted the most.
Dimitrov carried a 2-1 head-to-head advantage into the match against local favourite Kyrgios. However, the Australian had won their most recent encounter in the semi-finals of Brisbane, a tournament that Kyrgios went on to win. After all this was Kyrgios 2.0 that Dimitrov was up against — a more focused, physically-fit Kyrgios who had just pulled off one of the best wins of his fledgling career against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his previous round.
Kyrgios prevailed in four sets against Tsonga, winning three tie-breaks. His tie-break record (61.15 percent) was even referred to as “elite” by journalists after the third-round win. Dimitrov, with a tie-break win percentage of 55.38, had struggled at the Australian Open so far, even needing five sets to get past qualifier Mackenzie McDonald in the second round.
The first set was an aggressive shot-making, high-serving affair that saw no breaks. In the tie-break, a smart approach to the net off a cross-court backhand slice helped Dimitrov take the lead. He eventually clinched it 7-3 when Kyrgios hit his third double fault of the match on set point.
Kyrgios managed to take the second set into another tie-break, after having saved set point on Dimitrov’s serve. Once again, it was Dimitrov who executed the better strategy in the closely-contested tie-breaker, pulling Kyrgios wide off the court with a one-hander down the line and winning the point at the net with a volley into the open court. From 4-all, he won three straight points for a 2-0 lead.
In the third set, Kyrgios started playing with more freedom, swinging for winners at broke. His reflexes at the net, his booming forehand and his gutsy attitude on serve helped him fight back to make it 2-1. The 22-year-old had won two matches in the past from a 0-2 down situation, and you could see that he was growing in belief and was preparing an assault for another comeback.
Just when it looked like the match could be slipping out of Dimitrov’s hands after he dropped serve at 5-4 in the fourth set, the Bugarian once again switched things up a gear. With the potential of a fifth set looming over his shoulder, the 3rd seed cleaned up his game, made zero errors in the tie-break and sealed victory with a sensational forehand that he ripped past Kyrgios on full stretch.
After the final point, both players — good friends off the court — shared a long embrace at the net. In a great show of sportsmanship, Kyrgios told Dimitrov to “believe that he could win the title”. It was a tight contest that had fans on the edge of their seats for three hours. Dimitrov only emerged as the winner by going for his shots and being the more resilient one in the tie-breaks.
“I learned that I can switch to another gear when I really need it, Dimitrov said after the match. “I think this is something that I have been struggling obviously this tournament.”
“But today I was just able to overtake my game completely differently, having a high percentage in the first serve, high percentage on the return. Being able to play my game a little bit more, counting a little bit more on my strongest weapons, and, yeah, I think that was a good step forward for me,” Dimitrov told reporters.
Throughout the match, Dimitrov moved extremely well and confidently struck his groundstrokes off both wings. He sliced the ball, keeping it low to put Kyrgios in an uncomfortable returning position. He painted the lines with winners on the run, and caused much damage with his exquisite one-handed backhand. His excellent serve kept him ahead in the match, and he almost reduced his double faults by half (seven) from the previous round (15).
Dimitrov withstood a barrage of 76 winners, including 36 aces, from across the net. He was prepared for everything and did not let Kyrgios’ big-hitting intimidate him — a 200 kmph second serve bomb; a scorching forehand slapped across court; a cheeky, disguised drop shot from the baseline — he handled them all with ease.
The Bulgarian did not succumb under the pressure of playing in front of the 14,000 fans cheering for their player after every point, and rightly earned his place in the quarter-finals. He has grown over the past 12 months — semi-finals at Australian Open 2017, his first Masters 1000 title at Cincinnati and winning the ATP Finals — and he has grown with every round this year at Melbourne Park.
"Step by step we're moving forward. Match by match we're building up," Dimitrov said on court after his win about his flourishing partnership with coach Dani Valliverdu.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 21, 2018
Overcoming a fourth-set bagel against McDonald to win was one small step forward, recovering after the five-setter to beat rising star Andrey Rublev in the third round was another. However, getting past Kyrgios in a tense, four-set thriller is probably the biggest step in Dimitrov’s development.
A potential repeat of last year’s semi-final against Rafael Nadal awaits Dimitrov, if he can get past British number two Kyle Edmund in the last-eight clash. That will truly test how far he has come.
Updated Date: Jan 22, 2018 14:26 PM