Grigor Dimitrov does Sofia fans proud: beats David Goffin to continue hot 2017 run

Grigor Dimitrov beats David Goffin in straight sets to win the Sofia Open title

The young ATP 250 tournament in Sofia must have been praying for just such a final during this cold, gloomy February as the tour moved from sunny Australia to the indoor courts of Europe.

For it brought together two young players of the ‘90s’ generation, born just months apart and lately making valuable strides in their careers. Only a fortnight ago, No13 Grigor Dimitrov and No11 David Goffin met for just the second time since the US Open in 2014 in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open—a first for Goffin in Melbourne and, for eventual semi-finalist Dimitrov, also first.

Back in that first encounter, Goffin was yet to make his mark, ranked a lowly 56 to Dimitrov’s early surge to No8. The slight and nimble Goffin, under 6ft tall and 150 pounds in weight, did not win his first title until 2014, made a couple of finals the next year, and another in 2016, when his quick feet and hands also took him to 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 1000s.

His popularity also began to rise as his deft tennis proved 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 Milos Raonic at Wimbledon before losing in five. He hammered Tomas Berdych in Rome, beat Stan 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 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, facing not a break point.

However, the charismatic Dimitrov was arguably the youngest of the ‘90s’ generation 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 looks that turned 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—and took Rafael Nadal to the limit in a superb five-set semi-final battle in Melbourne.

That he had now opted into the Sofia draw for the first time was big news in itself: Dimitrov is as popular as they come in his home nation. That he was playing the kind of tennis that took him inside the top 10 at such a young age added to the frisson of excitement. And renewing his new rivalry with Goffin was perhaps the icing on the cake.

The first set more than lived up to expectations, too.

The 12,000 who have packed the Sofia arena every time Dimitrov played were in fine voice, and all the more so when he aced to hold serve and saw Goffin double fault on break point. In what seemed just a few minutes, the home favourite was 3-0 up.

But Goffin is fast, fit and resilient, and the quick conditions suited his clean and accurate placement. He rushed the net, worked three break-point chances, and broke courtesy of a double fault. Goffin held to level the score, 3-3: They stood at 30 points apiece.

Come the ninth game, Goffin had several chances to make the breakthrough, earning a first break point with a volley winner and seeing two more chances come and go, all saved by fine serving from the Bulgarian.

It took Dimitrov almost nine minutes to hold, 5-4, and Goffin hammered home the point with a love hold to level. It looked, then, destined for a tie-break, but the Belgian held back, played safe from the baseline, and suddenly faced three break points. With some distracting calls from the crowd, he fired a backhand wide and conceded the set, 7-5.

The umpire, not for the first time this week, called for restraint in the crowd, but the damage appeared to be done. Goffin scattered errors on Dimitrov’s opening service game, double faulted on his own for the break, and watched a glorious running forehand pass from Dimitrov break him again, 0-4.

The home man looked almost invincible as he dived and reached for volleys and backhands. Two double faults spoke of the pressure he felt to seal this home title, yet he still held, and served for the match at 5-1.

But Goffin, facing three match points, now went for broke, and it paid off. From 0-40 he pulled back to deuce and a nervy Bulgarian double fault gave him a break chance: He took it. He then upped the aggression, coming to the net at every opportunity, held and broke again. However, in the blink of an eye, he made a couple of errors, double faulted for 0-40, and Dimitrov broke for set and match, 6-4. Sofia erupted.

The scenes became extraordinarily emotional: The crowd chanted ‘Grigor, Grigor’, he knelt and kissed the court, walked to his box to embrace parents, coach Vallverdu, and many more besides. And through it all, Goffin cut a solitary, sad figure waiting courtside for the celebrations to die down.

Finally the Belgian stepped up for his trophy, and immediately charmed the crowd:

“Obviously, I want to congratulate Grigor [pause for cheering]—or maybe I should say Grishou [big smile as the arena cheered their approval]. I’m really impressed by the packed stadium yesterday and today. So thank you.”

And with that, he stepped back to give the stage to the champion, who now rises to within one ranking place of Goffin himself, at No12.

There was, too, a special thank-you for Vallverdu, for there is no doubt that the man who formed a central part in Andy Murray’s team for so long has been a stabilising and confidence-boosting force for Dimitrov since last August.

The Bulgarian is one of the most media-friendly and savvy players on the tour, and he played the crowd like a piano. But he had every right to soak up their applause: He has had some challenging years, and has perhaps borne the weight of expectation too heavily. But maybe 2017 really is the start of something special.

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