Madrid Masters 2013: Spell-binding Dimitrov downs Djokovic

Madrid Masters 2013: Grigor Dimitrov battles to a hard-fought victory over world No1 Novak Djokovic to reach the third round

grigor dimitrov
Grigor Dimitrov beat Novak Djokovic in three sets on Tuesday Photo: Marianne Bevis

It was the day that the top three men in tennis—Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray—opened their campaigns on Madrid’s startling orange show court inside the cool blue metallic of its ‘magic box’.

Each player had milestones, each their own special reason to find some magic on this particular day in May.

First up was Federer, the only one of the trio to have won the Madrid Masters three times, and the only one to win twice since its move to clay.

His milestone depended upon him defending the title he won on the blue iteration of this court last year, for he currently stands just one trophy short of John McEnroe’s tally of 77. Federer’s pursuit of his first title of 2013, then, would draw him equal third on the list of Open era title-winners.

For observers of Federer, however, it was perhaps less his milestones and more his form that was under scrutiny. This would be his first match in seven weeks and his first on clay, and in Czech Radek Stepanek, he faced a testing opener: Both Federer’s losses in their 13-match, decade-long rivalry had been on clay.

But although Federer was far from spell-binding, he soon took control of some resilient and varied Stepanek tennis to take a 6-3, 6-3 win in 81 minutes. It was satisfactory, as he admitted: “I didn’t think I played incredible, but that’s not what I was expecting…I didn’t play bad either.” As for his end-of-week target, he made no bones about that: “I would love to tie McEnroe at 77, no doubt about it.”

If Federer teased the taste-buds, Andy Murray got the juices flowing as he took on the man he afterwards described as “a very, very difficult player…so unorthodox, can play almost any shot.”

The man in question was world No26, Florian Mayer, and he thoroughly tested Murray’s intensive clay training block of the last fortnight. On any other day, this would have been a candidate for the finest match, comprising as it did two highly creative players who can generate spins, drops, lobs and angled patterns to thrill the most jaded palate.

The first set tie-break tested and teased both men as it edged tensely to 11 all. Finally Murray, having saved five set points, sealed it 13-11, only to see Mayer strike straight back in the second set with a break to lead 3-0. But Murray levelled it at 4-4 and they headed to a second tie-break, this one taken more quickly by Murray, 7-3.

It had been two hours of touch, craft, variety and energy: almost 50 net points between them, 12 Mayer aces to Murray’s six, 27 unforced errors each, and rather more winners. It also achieved Murray’s milestone, the one that was postponed by his shock third-round loss to Stan Wawrinka in Monte Carlo: 400 match-wins.

Even the famously laconic Murray was almost impressed: “400 is a lot of matches! There aren’t too many who have got 500…would be nice to do that.”

But it was Madrid’s night sky that brought the biggest star to its “magic box”, the man who heads the rankings by more than 4,000 points, who won the first clay Masters of the year against the clay master, Rafael Nadal, in Monte Carlo, and who won in Madrid in 2011.

Novak Djokovic has made no secret this year of his ambition to win the French Open, and a win against the youngest man in the top 50, Grigor Dimitrov, would not only be a step nearer that goal but a step nearer the top of the match-win list for 2013: He trailed David Ferrer by two he took to court.

But this match had the makings of something special from the moment the draw was made. For in Dimitrov, Djokovic faced one of the most talented and charismatic players of the new generation. The Bulgarian may have been burdened, since winning the Junior titles at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2008, by comparisons with Federer, but he has grown steadily into his tall frame and bounteous skills via the guiding hands of various contrasting coaches.

Slowly but surely, he climbed the rankings, all the while charming fans and pundits alike. 2012 brought his first ATP semi-final, on his favourite surface, grass, at Queens, followed by two more on clay. This year, he opened with his first final in Brisbane and went on to his first 500 semi in Rotterdam, before giving Djokovic himself a run for his money in the first set in Indian Wells. He proved that was no fluke by making a strong run on Monte Carlo’s clay, taking the opening set from Nadal in the quarters.

Even so, few expected the 21-year-old world No28 to halt Djokovic in the Serb’s opening match—even when he forced another tie-break in the opening set.

As he had in Indian Wells and in Monte Carlo, Dimitrov looked every inch the top-10 player, firing glorious backhand winners at will, angling his exaggerated forehands wide, making and retrieving drop shots—seemingly every shot in the book. He tumbled, picked himself up, and wasted not a moment to get back to work—and the crowd lapped it up.

But in those former contests with Djokovic and Nadal, nerves had gripped Dimitrov at the decisive moments: Not this time, though. He was also buoyed up by the increasingly enthusiastic support of the packed stadium.

Djokovic made the tactical mistake of challenging some line calls, then criticised the umpire for a time-violation warning and finally was taunted into a sarcastic thumbs-up at the crowd as he levelled for the tie-break. And he paid the price: the crowd swung wholly behind Dimitrov, urging him from 4-1 down, via set points down, to take the opener, 8-6.

However, the drama was only just beginning. Dimitrov survived an eight-minute third game to break Djokovic in the sixth for a 4-2 lead.

In the seventh, with Dimitrov facing break point, Djokovic slipped and turned over the right ankle that he had injured before the clay season. He took a medical timeout and returned to seal the break against Dimitrov.

Next it was Dimitrov to suffer physical difficulties: At 5-5, deuce, he began to cramp, and only two distracted errors from Djokovic kept him in the race. They would contest another tie-break. Now Djokovic clearly had the ascendancy, and went 3-0 up, but at 5-2, Dimitrov edged his way back with some great baseline shot-making to level, and then held match point at 7-6.

By now, the crowd was chanting Dimitrov’s name, even cheering Djokovic’s errors, but a bold net attack gave the increasingly angry Serb the set, 10-8—and it looked merely a matter of time until he also took the match.

Again the pendulum swung back. With some physio revitalising his legs, Dimitrov scampered, tumbled some more, outplayed Djokovic from the baseline, and broke for a 2-0 lead. Bloodied in leg, arm and fingers, he visibly regained his poise, defied break points in the fifth and, leading 5-3, made a conclusive break to take set and match, 6-3.

The handshake between the two was warm, but the crowd reserved all their applause for the new young star in their magical arena. He responded with tears, for this did, indeed, feel like a momentous milestone for the popular Bulgarian.

He has proved he can live with some of the best that tennis has to offer—though his cramping here and in his three-setter against Nadal suggests there is more physical conditioning to do. But confidence breeds confidence: “I believed in myself. I think that was the big sparkle coming into the third set.”

And sparkle, for this young man on this starry night, was just the right word.

Also through were…

Wild card Pablo Andujar, who has already taken out Marin Cilic and John Isner;

Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who beat No8 seed Richard Gasquet;

Fernando Verdasco, scoring back-to-back wins for the first time since the Australian Open to beat No12 seed Milos Raonic;

Gilles Simon, who next plays Murray, defeated Jeremy Chardy;

Juan Monaco beat Janko Tipsarevic;
Tommy Haas beat Andreas Seppi;
Stan Wawrinka beat Marius Copil;

Santiago Giraldo beat Martin Klizan;
Benoit Paire beat Joao Souza—and next plays Nadal;
Mikhail Youzhny beat Fabio Fognini;

Tommy Robredo beat Marcos Baghdatis
Viktor Troicki beat Marcel Granollers.

Alan Shearer (Photo: BBC Sport / Screengrab)
‘Just too good’: Alan Shearer heaps praise on Chelsea FC trio
Paul Merson
Paul Merson: Harry Kane would be 'perfect' for Man United
Gabriel Martinelli
Mikel Arteta sends fresh message to Arsenal fans about Gabriel Martinelli
Kai Havertz
‘I have to’: Kai Havertz makes vow to Chelsea FC fans
Mason Mount
Thomas Tuchel makes bold prediction about Mason Mount at Chelsea FC
Alan Shearer (Photo: BBC Sport / Screengrab)
‘Just too good’: Alan Shearer heaps praise on Chelsea FC trio
Paul Merson
Paul Merson: Harry Kane would be 'perfect' for Man United
Gabriel Martinelli
Mikel Arteta sends fresh message to Arsenal fans about Gabriel Martinelli
Kai Havertz
‘I have to’: Kai Havertz makes vow to Chelsea FC fans
Mason Mount
Thomas Tuchel makes bold prediction about Mason Mount at Chelsea FC
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature