Roger Federer, 38, was looking to become the oldest player to reach the semi-finals of a Grand Slam since 1991. Who better to deny him than the player labelled 'Baby Fed' for the resemblance that his game bears to that of the Swiss?
In their seven career meetings prior to their US Open quarter-final match, Federer led Grigor Dimitrov 7-0. If that head to head record wasn’t daunting enough, another fact to be gleaned from the same was that Dimitrov had managed to win just two sets against 'Papa Fed' in the entirety of those seven matches.
The odds were heavily stacked against the Bulgarian Dimitrov who was coming off a rather disappointing season thus far. Post his somewhat inspiring third-round exit at the French Open – he beat Janko Tipsarevic and the 11th seed Marin Cilic, both in taxing five-setters before his tight three-set loss to Stan Wawrinka 6-7, 6-7, 6-7 – in the six tournaments he has played since then, including Wimbledon, Dimitrov could get past the first round on only one occasion. His best finish in this period? A second-round exit in Los Cabos, Mexico.
The title drought was disconcerting for a player who had, as recently as 2017, won the ATP World Tour Finals and was ranked No 3 in the world then.
The slump in form led to a corresponding slump in rankings and Dimitrov entered the US Open, unseeded and ranked 78, lowly by the lofty mantle that he was supposed to ascend as the proverbial ‘Baby Fed’.
However, that lowly ranking and the unseeded billing seem to have empowered Dimitrov who has been playing with some elan at the US Open. To beat the battered drum, quote the clichéd, Dimitrov had nothing to lose.
In a little over three hours that Dimitrov played in his quarter-final against Federer, he looked free from the weight of expectations, from the obligations he would have felt he had of coming good on the promise that many saw in him, and most of all, of being ‘Baby Fed’.
The Bulgarian’s backhand returns have been pulverizing, and are pulled out often for winners at the ongoing US Open. Dimitrov has also worked on keeping the errors in check. Against Federer, he went one better and got his return of serve in line with the task at hand, of stretching the rallies and “staying with him, not letting him take a heavy lead,” as Dimitrov said at the post-match presser.
As the first set wore to a conclusion, with Federer winning it 6-3, it was evident that Dimitrov needed to allow the rallies to fester, boil to a brimming conclusion where hopefully, Federer, would blink first.
That ask of him was fulfilled for much of the second set. Dimitrov got the set underway by holding his serve to love and going up 1-0. He then had a breakpoint in the second but a routine ace from Federer brought the game to deuce. A couple of thumping forehands later, Federer was on the board, the score was 1-1.
The set advanced on serve until Dimitrov converted, what was only his second break-point of the night, to go up 4-2. What led to the same was a tweak in strategy from Dimitrov, who abstained from going down the middle, sending his forehands down both flanks which meant that Federer was continually scampering through his court.
The third-seeded Swiss was scrappy with his first serves, allowing Dimitrov to get a good return in and thereon, stand a chance of out-hitting his opponent.
While Federer brought the set back on serve at 4-5, Dimitrov didn’t let up. The Bulgarian garnered another breakpoint even as Federer was serving to stay in the set. Dimitrov moved back to get a good eye on the second serve from Federer which has been known to kick off the surface.
Nevertheless, the backhand return of serve from Dimitrov dropped short and fell right within Federer's arc. The Swiss had his opponent right where he wanted him and hit a thumping forehand which sent the Bulgarian lurching sideways, managing to return somehow.
The ball again sat up perfectly for Federer who needed to hit just the one forehand to kill the ball. He had an open court to do so as Dimitrov had started moving the wrong way. However, an unforced error from the third seed came at the worst possible moment and he sent his return wide.
Dimitrov, statuesque as he realised that he would have missed that ball had it landed in, exulted while his box of supporters let out a roar. Federer had lost only his third set in the US Open this year. Dimitrov had won only his third set ever against the Swiss. For the night though, five was the charm for the Bulgarian.
It took Dimitrov another lost set to make the winning tweak in his game: The backhand return off the serve. Federer had been routinely serving down his opponent’s wrong side. Dimitrov couldn’t counter the spin on Federer's second serve and more often than not, sent his backhand long.
On the other end of the court, the third-seeded Swiss was using the backhand slice to good effect. Against Dimitrov’s speedy first serves, Federer would merely let the ball arrive on the face of his angled racquet.
He got enough on the ball to send it over the net where it would drop short, having Dimitrov stagger ahead in a bid to salvage the point.
The Swiss’ manner of complementing the force on his forehands with some deft stroke-play off the backhand had kept the Bulgarian on his toes.
That was until Dimitrov aped his opponent. In the fourth set, the Bulgarian went about blocking the serves on his backhand with his angled racquet.
The results showed instantly. Once Dimitrov had managed to return the serve and keep the ball in play, he could go hunting for the leeway he needed for those winners. The fourth set began with Dimitrov earning a break of serve, going up 2-0 before Federer could get on the scoreboard.
What didn’t help Federer was his sluggish movement. The Swiss was immaculate with his serve and volley game in the first set. However, for the remainder of the match, Dimitrov found his passing shots cutting through his opponent. The Bulgarian’s crosscourt returns left Federer, who’d be traipsing towards the net, falling over in his failed bid to volley.
It was those back-breaking bends at the net that had Federer take an unusual medical timeout after losing the fourth set 4-6. The expectant air in the crowd grew in flavour as Dimitrov had found his mojo.
In the final set, it was one-way traffic. Dimitrov went up by a couple of breaks to 4-0, the grace on his volleys shining through as the cameras ogled at Baby Fed.
The Bulgarian bundled up the set 6-2 and advanced to the semi-finals, only the second in his career at the Grand Slams. What did the trick was Dimitrov keeping a check on his unforced errors while drawing the same from his opponent. For the match, Dimitrov's errors tally stood at 41 to his opponent's 61, while he stayed within touching distance for the winners, 35 to Federer's 40.
After his fourth-round exit at the hands of Roger Federer, the 15th seed David Goffin had stated that he was overwhelmed by the occasion where the scores of people which had thronged the Arthur Ashe Stadium were rooting for one man, which wasn’t him.
“As soon as you are there, first match on Ashe against him, you can feel all the 20,000 people are behind him as soon as he hit the ball. All of a sudden every shot is 10 times tougher than usual,” Goffin had said in his post-match presser.
Dimitrov had been in similar situations against the Swiss in the past, having also fallen to him in the final at the Rotterdam Open, barely putting up a fight as he went down 2-6, 2-6 back in 2017.
It was perhaps the loss in rankings and the freedom which came with it, that helped Dimitrov not get trumped by the aura of the man and the occasion. Moreover, the change in the coaching box where Radek Stepanek and Andre Agassi have teamed up to get the Bulgarian achieve his true potential is bearing fruits after a string of poor results.
Dimitrov though isn't looking back to the year that has been so far. "I mean there’s no point to sit here and talk about the past six, seven months, to welcome everybody to my pity party. I faced the adversity, faced everything I had to. I’m back. I’m enjoying it, as well. I’m feeling free," he had said after winning his fourth-round match against Alex de Minaur.
Baby Fed has shown his teeth here and will next face Daniil Medvedev. He'll likely be the crowd favourite in that match as Medvedev has gone full villain at Flushing Meadows this year.
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Updated Date: Sep 04, 2019 17:47:29 IST