Madrid Masters: Dimitrov tops Wawrinka in battle of single-handers

Grigor Dimitrov beats Stan Wawrinka in three sets to set up a Madrid Masters quarter-final clash with Rafael Nadal

With the loss of the No1 seed and former Madrid champion Roger Federer in a scintillating three-tie-break fest on Wednesday night, where would the Swiss great’s fans turn their eyes for consolation?

The answer, as like as not, was to the first match of the day on the Caja Magica’s second show court, where two men, each with their own ties to Federer, would contest a place in the quarter-finals.

Long-standing friend, compatriot, and Olympic and Davis Cup partner Stan Wawrinka was one of the first through to the last 16 after he beat Lucky Loser Joao Sousa. But since winning his first ATP 500 title indoors in Rotterdam in February, Wawrinka had struggled with consistency. In his last four tournaments he had yet to beat a top-40 opponent, and had won just three matches, including a second-round exit as defending champion in Monte-Carlo last month.

He lost that match to the man he now faced for the second time in consecutive Masters, Grigor Dimitrov.

The popular Bulgarian had also found deep runs elusive this season, and since his fourth-round loss to Andy Murray at the Australian Open, had won just one match in each of four straight tournaments until his quarter-final finish in Monte-Carlo, followed by a semi run in Istanbul. Even so, Wawrinka was Dimitrov’s only top-20 scalp this year.

Dimitrov’s links with Federer have moved along since he was first dubbed ‘baby Fed’ after winning the Wimbledon junior title in 2008 with much of the flair and playing style of his boyhood hero.

It has been a heavy cross to bear, and a comparison he still tries to avoid, though his all-court game, service motion, touch, single-handed backhand—and even his easy-going off-court personality—make comparisons inevitable. That he became an early recruit to the PR company set up by Federer and his agent Tony Godsick has thrown them together off court as well as on: Often they practise together, have played exhos together, share sponsorships with Nike and Wilson… and have huge and mutual fan bases.

There were, then, plenty waiting to watch Wawrinka and Dimitrov face off against one another for the second time in a month. Currently ranked just two places apart, Wawrinka at eight and Dimitrov at 10, this battle between two of the most striking one-handed backhands in tennis did not disappoint.

Wawrinka got first blood to lead 3-2, though Dimitrov saved three break points along the way, including one jaw-dropping lob retrieval. However, the Bulgarian struck straight back. There was little to separate them all the way to a tie-break, and with plenty of charismatic rallies to enjoy—from all corners and on both wings.

Dimitrov opened up a 2-0 lead with an off forehand winner, Wawrinka levelled at 4-4, before Dimitrov edged one final penetrating backhand exchange to seal the set, 7-6(5).

Wawrinka quickly reasserted himself in the second set with a love hold and then a breakthrough at the fourth attempt in the second game. Another hold, and he was 3-0 up. He maintained the advantage to level the match, 6-3, closing the second set with another strong love hold.

For much of the third set, Wawrinka continued to dominate on serve, too, while Dimitrov had to find the same resilience that brought him from a set down to beat Fabio Fognini in second round. He fought off a break point in the third game and two more in the fifth, before finally emulating Wawrinka’s fine serving with a love hold in seventh.

All at once, though, the Swiss man’s first serve deserted him and his level dropped below 40 percent. Dimitrov saw his opportunity and earned a break chance, but Wawrinka responded with a down-the-line winner. Another break chance came and went, but the Wawrinka serve was now a liability, and he double faulted to give Dimitrov the 5-3 lead.

So at just a second short of two hours, the 23-year-old served his way into the Madrid quarters for the first time, but admitted it had been a tough match: Indeed Wawrinka won five more points than Dimitrov.

“It was a tough match. He was up a break in the first set and he was playing good tennis, much, much better than when we played in Monte-Carlo. Today, what I think I did really well was to keep a good composure throughout the whole match. I was playing solid tennis, even though, occasionally, he was just outplaying me and over-powering me.

“I exploited his weak spot, which was his forehand, and he missed a couple of times, which gave me the confidence. After breaking in the third set, I felt really comfortable to step in and win the match.”

But if that was a tough match, the challenge is about to get even tougher in the shape of defending champion Rafael Nadal.

The Spaniard made short work of another single-hander, Simone Bolelli, 6-2, 6-2, and will relish the chance to pummel that same backhand wing with his kicking leftie serve and leaping forehand. He has beaten Dimitrov in all five previous meetings, though several of them have been highly competitive.

The winner will play either No6 seed and former Madrid runner-up, Tomas Berdych, who beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-5, 6-2 in just 89 minutes, or John Isner.

The big 30-year-old American his 20 aces past Federer’s conqueror Nick Kyrios to beat the 20-year-old, 6-3, 6-7(7), 6-4. Berdych has not dropped a set to Isner since 2012, and has won four straight matches that include Roland Garros last year.

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