Earlier in the day, last year’s losing finalist Milos Raonic beat the fast-rising Frenchman Lucas Pouille, 6-4, 6-4, to set up just his second meeting with 23-year-old Bernard Tomic, who pulled off a reversal of his match here a year ago with victory over No2 seed, Kei Nishikori, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3.
Then 22-year-old Dominic Thiem, beat No3 seed, Marin Cilic, 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4.
Like Tomic, the young Austrian made major inroads in the rankings last year to break into the top 20 for the first time, while Tomic has been at No18 since last October.
The question was, would Thiem, the youngest man in the top 20, play fellow 1990s player Grigor Dimitrov or the altogether more mature 34-year-old Roger Federer for a place in the Brisbane final? In both cases, it would be a first meeting, and in both cases against a fellow-one-hander.
The Bulgarian broke into the top 10 at the age of 23 in 2014—apparent proof that here was the most promising of the ‘new generation’ of men born in the 1990s. And Dimitrov, perhaps consciously, perhaps not, did so with a style of play that has remarkable echoes of Federer’s.
His similarities with Federer have, of course, been rehearsed many times, and are primarily rooted in the junior Bulgarian’s admiration of his idol’s one-handed backhand, though they adopt a similar stance while serving, and slo-mo replays of this their fourth encounter reinforced other echoes. Dimitrov’s serve-and-forehand one-two is one of Federer’s favourite plays, while the Bulgarian’s aggressive, fast-paced ball-striking is, at times, a mirror-image of Federer’s.
The similarities do not finish on court, either, for Dimitrov’s pleasing off-court demeanour quickly caught the eye of the sponsors who have always backed Federer. A bespoke red and black, 97in Wilson racket: check. Crisp Nike kit: check. Conditioning coach Stéphane Vivier, who spent five years with Federer: check. Federer’s management agency, owned by the Swiss and long-standing agent Tony Godsick: check.
However, while they know each other well, they had not met competitively since here last year. Federer recalled: “I think it’s a tough draw to have Grigor in the quarters. Played him in the semis, last year and played a good match against him. He’s got a big year ahead of him, I’m sure he wants to make his way back into the top 10, if not beyond that this year, so this is the beginning for him.”
It was a reference to Dimitrov’s slip in rankings and confidence last year, from No8 to a current No28. During that time, Dimitrov had switched to a new racket, switched coaches and separated from girlfriend Maria Sharapova. Now, though, with racket and new coach bedded in, and with two tough wins over difficult opposition, Gilles Simon and Viktor Troicki, he sounded more up-beat.
“I think I’ve always been aggressive when I play, that’s my style. But consistency is the key. If you play well and have consistent results, everything else comes with it.
“Play one match at the time, and whatever the outcome, put my head down and just keep working until one day everything just becomes better and better.”
There was certainly no doubting the improvement in Dimitrov’s tennis against Federer compared with last year, a 6-2, 6-2 breeze for the Swiss. It was fast and furious tennis, with both men looking to take the initiative, both serving aggressively, both making for the net whenever possible.
Federer’s serving in particular—varied, flexible, disguised, now with flat pace down the middle, now with kick out wide—was dominant. He did not drop a point in his first three service games and only two in the whole set.
Dimitrov defended a break point in the sixth game with a smart body-serve veering to Federer’s backhand, but serving a 4-5, Federer grabbed the initiative as soon as Dimitrov offered him a second serve. Dancing backwards to the ad-court tramlines, he pummelled a forehand winner down the line for two break points, and although the Bulgarian produced two winning serves for deuce, a crafty chip and charge from Federer broke Dimitrov down for the set, 6-4: 13 winners for seven errors, and 15 from 15 on first serves.
Federer opened the second set in the same style, a love hold, but faced deuce in third game as Dimitrov upped the ante with a couple of great backhand winners, one a high volley, the second a bullet of a down-the-line, return-of-serve winner.
Federer applauded, but thus far he had still made few errors, and again it was Federer’s returning strikes that produced two break points. Dimitrov this time was too strong, and he had Federer chasing the length and breadth of the court to hold. It took its toll as Dimitrov broke in the next game.
Yet the younger man wavered as he served, 5-3, missing four out of six first serves, and Federer made hay, attacked the net, broke back. It was a tie-break.
The Swiss though now seemed low on energy—still recovering from flu, it seemed. Federer looked rushed, made his first double fault of the match, and the Bulgarian raced to the set, 7-6(4), with an impressive 19 winners.
A short off-court break for Federer, however, seemed to work wonders, and the love holds flowed again. Another chip-and-charge play broke Dimitrov in the fifth game, and although the Bulgarian stood his ground in the face of three more break points in the eighth game, Federer served it out to love, 6-4.
This was, even so, the first time that Dimitrov had taken a set from Federer, and when it came to stats, there was little in it. Dimitrov edged on winners 30 to 28, Federer made one fewer error, 26-27. At the net, Federer’s skill shone, 27 out of 35. Dimitrov, trying to follow in the master’s footsteps, made 12 from 22. He has, of course, 10 years less experience—but time is on his side.
However, it is to the next ambitious young player that Federer must now look, in a swift turn-around into his first day match.
And make no mistake: Thiem is an undoubted talent, growing in physical strength, durability and confidence. Federer is only too aware of the challenge, even though they have not played a match before, as he invited Thiem to train with him in Switzerland last season.
“Grigor is a great shot-maker…and Thiem is a great shot-maker too—one of the best one-handed backhands in the game. I was very impressed with what I saw.
“Today he had a really tough match against Cilic but these are the matches the young guys have got to win to take it to the next level, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
Only one of the remaining 1990s men has won a match against Federer—Raonic is 1-9, Tomic 0-3—but just as for Dimitrov, time is on their side. Will experience carry Federer to his 89th title here? Time, and first Thiem, will tell.