None of the previous winners of this prestigious pre-Wimbledon tournament—home favourite Andy Murray, Marin Cilic, Lleyton Hewitt or Sam Querrey got—beyond the third round, and the two top seeds, Stan Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych, fell in the quarters and semis respectively.
However the last two men standing should not have been a complete surprise. No4 seed Grigor Dimitrov and No10 seed Feliciano Lopez may be separated by the tennis equivalent of a generation, but both had grass credentials and the kind of tennis that shines on the fast, low-bouncing surface made for attacking tennis.
And while it may, for both of them, have been a first Queen’s final, both had reached the semis before.
The 23-year-old Dimitrov also boasted a junior Wimbledon (and US Open) title, and at 20, came within a hair’s breadth of beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the All England Club in 2011.
He broke into the top 20 this year after reaching his first Major quarter-final in Australia, and went on to win his first 500 tournament in Acapulco, then the Bucharest title, plus the semi of the Rome Masters. The youngest player in the top 20 rose to No12, and with an elegant and explosive game, pin-up looks and a superstar girlfriend in the shape of Maria Sharapova, he was already a headliner.
But in the 32-year-old Lopez, who seemed to mature with age like wine, Dimitrov played a man who had reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals no fewer than three times, and last year won his first grass title at Eastbourne.
Now both were fighting for new markers at very different stages in their careers. Dimitrov, with the Acapulco and Bucharest titles already this year, could be the first man this year to win a title on all three surfaces. Lopez was aiming to become the oldest champion at Queen’s since another left-hander, Tony Roche, aged 33, did so in 1978.
To add a little to the story, the two had played one another only once before, and it was here in 2010, when Dimitrov was still a teenager. Lopez remembered it only vaguely, but he was quick to point out that things had moved on a lot since then:
“Obviously this time is going to be so different. He’s a completely different player than he was when we played here a few years ago. As he showed yesterday, he’s playing great. He beat No3 in the world easy today. He’s going to be very confident. If I want to win, I have to play very aggressive, consistent. If I play like this, I will have my opportunities, I think.”
It proved to be a feast, because both did indeed play at the highest level almost from the first moment of what became a two-and-a-half battle in which the final score certainly did not lie. It went to the wire, via three tie-breakers… but which man would be victor?
Dimitrov opened proceedings with the cleanest of games, comprising two aces, a 137mph third delivery and a serve winner.
Lopez had no problems either, but it was he who came under pressure first in the sixth game. Twice he faced a break point, both times he serve-and-volleyed, and held.
But Dimitrov has proved time and again that he too is more than willing to play at the net and has wonderful touch, creativity and power, almost the complete all-court package. And as both men boast single-handed backhands, both were able to chip and charge, or slice in defence, or play the lowest of skimming backhand volleys.
They sliced and diced, served and volleyed their way to a tie-break, Lopez took a 5-2 lead, Dimitrov levelled at 6-6 with a 135mph ace, but could never quite get the edge. Lopez drew the key error and then volleyed a winner for the set, 10-8.
The Spaniard served first in the second set, and it unfolded along the same lines, with few unforced errors anywhere but shots of touch, flair and variety—many from the front of the court. By 3-3 they both had 10 aces, and pursued one another to 5-5.
A brilliant hold of serve by Lopez for 6-5 threw huge pressure on the young Bulgarian, who escaped facing 15-40 when an out call was overturned.
But that did not stop Lopez once again opening up the court with an angled slice to rush in for the volley finish and a breakpoint—and match-point.
It took the rally of the match to save it, a turning point if ever there was one. There were lobs, pick-ups, volleys and a superb recovery from Dimitrov before holding with an ace. With the wind in his sails and a swagger in his step, he served out the tie-break 7-1. He seemed now to have all the momentum, and—not just nine years younger but with two fewer matches in his legs as well—the money was on him to sweep through the decider.
No such thing: Lopez attacked and broke in the opening game, and in a real statement of intent, aced his way to a 2-0 lead, and then 3-1 with a clutch of three aces. The match was two hours old and the momentum had just swung again.
Both were now diving after volleys, chasing drops, making reflex touches at the net. Lopez held off a break point for 4-2, Dimitrov held serve with three aces—one cranked up to 138mph.
The pressure, and perhaps increasing tiredness in his legs, finally told on Lopez, and Dimitrov broke to level at 4-4. When they reached the concluding tie-break, the younger man looked favourite to run away with it, but Lopez resisted, attacked, held firm to 5-5. But then a sliced backhand caught the net, and given a final bite of the cherry, Dimitrov sealed the win with an ace.
He was, then, the victor—it had seemed destined at Queen’s ever since he plied his beautiful trade here for the first time, as a wild card, five years ago. Dimitrov remembered that first time and strode to the then tournament director, Chris Kermode, to give him his winning racket.
The man with his head buried in a towel, though, could have been the victor but for a couple of shots—and the disappointment was palpable. Yet he was as gracious a loser as Dimitrov was a winner.
It could not, then, have been a finer match—unless the scoring of tennis permitted a draw.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge