Australian Open 2017: Aspiring Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin seek place among last four
Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin will battle for a place in the semi-finals of the Australian Open in Melbourne this week
The men’s side of the first Grand Slam of the year has certainly not been short on surprises.
First, world No1 Andy Murray and No2 and six-time Australian champion Novak Djokovic went out before the first week was over. It was the most unlikely end to the first week: The two had dominated the previous 12 months… yet there they were, gone.
Two former champions, two of tennis’s most prolific Grand Slam winners, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, were back together in a Grand Slam for the first time in a year, but ranked at No17 and No9 respectively, they were not even seeded to reach the quarter-finals. The latter had not played in 2016 after pulling the plug at the Shanghai Masters, having withdrawn from the entire grass season with wrist injury. The former managed only seven events all year, and withdrew from the tour after his semi run at Wimbledon.
Their return brought equal quantities of excitement and uncertainty, yet they confounded their tough draws to make the quarters. Federer did so with strong performances over Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori, Nadal with wins over Alexander Zverev and Gael Monfils.
The presence of 35-year-old Federer and 30-year-old Nadal has not been the only flag hoisted over Melbourne for the over-30s. No4 seed and 2014 Australian champion Stan Wawrinka, age 31, is through, and former Australian finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, also 31, will face him.
But three of the remaining four are bringing a fresh face and younger dimension to proceedings. The three, born within five months of each other, are each plying a different style and ploughing a different furrow into their mid-20s: The ’90s generation.
Milos Raonic has taken huge strides—literally and metaphorically—to become a relative old hand on the Grand Slam scene. He reached the fourth round in Australia six years ago, and slowly but surely has edged through the quarters of three different Majors, reached the semis in Melbourne last year, and the final of Wimbledon last summer.
His next task is Nadal, and as daunting a task as that may seem against the reinvigorated Spaniard who recruited the Canadian’s coach of 2016, Carlos Moya, Raonic has won two of their last three matches, both from a set down.
But at the bottom of the same half are two more ‘90s men’ who, thus far, have met only once on the main tour—though several times during their first year on the senior circuit.
Grigor Dimitrov, the youngest of the 90s trio, was also arguably the youngest to shine and the first to make tennis fans sit up and take notice. He won the junior Wimbledon and US Open titles in 2008, and quickly reminded many of a young Federer: slender, with a single-handed backhand, all-court flair and the looks and charisma to turn heads.
By 2013 and 2014, he was winning titles, and he broke inside the top 10 with runs to the quarters in Australia and the semis of Wimbledon. But his confidence and consistency wavered despite remaining a high-profile favourite on the circuit—until he reversed his downward ranking at 40 to begin the climb again with new coach Dani Vallverdu.
After three finals last year, he won his first title in two and a half years in Brisbane just ahead of the Australian Open, beating three top-10 opponents on the way. One of them was Raonic.
Now he is into the Melbourne quarters for the second time, and will play Goffin for the first time since that solitary Grand Slam encounter when Dimitrov was still ranked No8 and the Belgian a lowly 56.
For the slight Goffin has followed a slower trajectory since his teenage years. Under 6ft tall and still only weighing 150 pounds, his nimble, fleet-footed, crisp-hitting tennis took him to a first title in 2014, to a couple of finals the next year, and another in 2016, when his considerable abilities, on clay in particular, saw a first Major quarter-final at Roland Garros, back-to-back semis at the big Indian Wells and Miami Masters, and the quarters of two more.
Not a flashy player nor an extrovert personality, his popularity has also been more of slow burn, with his deft, fast feet and hands proving to be a great foil to the big power-hitters. He beat Juan Martin del Potro and Gael Monfils in Shanghai, Marin Cilic in Tokyo, was up by two sets against Raonic at Wimbledon before losing in five. He hammered Berdych in Rome, beat Wawrinka in Indian Wells, and scored one of four wins over another contemporary rival, the younger but higher ranked Dominic Thiem.
In Melbourne, Goffin beat the powerful Thiem again, his first top-10 win at a Major, and that after demolishing the serving machine who stands almost a foot taller than Goffin, Ivo Karlovic, breaking the Croat four times and facing not a break point.
Perhaps, then, the improvements to strength and stamina that Goffin have developed are beginning to match his dextrous tennis. Perhaps it is timely that he now renews his on-court relationship with Dimitrov, with both sitting just short of the top 10.
The lively styles, and the rising confidence that both are enjoying, suggest that these two men born just five months apart will serve up an intriguing and attractive display on the quick courts in Melbourne.
The reward for the winner will be fellow 90s man Raonic or the formidable former champion Nadal. Whether either can break through the virtual glass ceiling of the Grand Slam establishment to win the title remains to be seen: Nadal, Federer and Wawrinka will not allow their younger colleagues into their elite presence without an almighty fight.
But maybe, just maybe, with Murray and Djokovic out of the picture, there is room for a new face among the final four come Thursday.