Rotterdam 2017: Dimitrov, Goffin and Thiem bring fresh blood to evergreen draw

There remained plenty of old faces doing it for the over-30s in the main draw in Rotterdam despite the withdrawals of Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka

The two hoped-for stars of the year’s first ATP500 tournament in Rotterdam, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka, may have been forced to withdraw after their exertions at the Australian Open, but there remained plenty of old faces doing it for the over-30s in the main draw.

No fewer than 13 of the opening round of 32 were aged between 30 and 35, and by the time they had whittled down to 16, seven were still standing.

At the other end of the scale, a handful of #NextGen players aged 20 or younger was also making a mark. Borna Coric won the battle between two of them, though the two tie-breaks showed how close Karen Khachanov came. Dutch wild card Tallon Griekspoor could not resist the experience and power of 33-year-old Gilles Muller, who won his first title in his sixth final at the start of this year.

For age these days in tennis is more and more just a number. Ask Wawrinka, winning as many titles in each year since he turned 30—2015 and 2016—as he had in his entire career up to 2013, with all three Grand Slams won in the last three years.

Ask his compatriot, 35-year-old Roger Federer, who extended his record of Major titles to 18 almost five years after No17.

Ask 36-year-old Victor Estrella Burgos who this week won the Quito title for the third year in a row.

But it is not just Muller, Federer, and Estrella Burgos who have won titles this year.

The 19-year-old Alexander Zverev has been hard to miss since he reached the quarters in Rotterdam this time last year. Soon after, he had match point against Nadal in Indian Wells, made his first final on the clay of Nice, beat Federer on his way to his next final in Halle, and won his first title in St Petersburg, beating Tomas Berdych and Wawrinka.

That made him the youngest ATP champion since Nishikori in 2008, and he went on to become the youngest top-20 player since Novak Djokovic. And he launched into 2017 with another win over Federer at the Hopman Cup, had a second close encounter with Nadal at the Australian Open, and last week won the Montpellier title.

One of the biggest winners so far this year, Grigor Dimitrov, is now 25, and although he began to win titles three years ago, he has been rebuilding his form from a low of 40 last summer to win his first title in two and a half years in Brisbane before the Australian Open. Then he took Nadal to the limit in a five-set semi in Melbourne, and by the time he arrived in Rotterdam, he had won the Sofia title, too—a 14-1 record for the year.

In that Sofia final, just as in the Melbourne quarter-finals, he met a man just months his elder, David Goffin. The slight, nimble Belgian won his first title in 2014, and last year scored back-to-back semis at the Indian Wells and Miami Masters and made his first Major quarter-final at Roland Garros.

He beat the likes of Juan Martin del Potro and Gael Monfils in Shanghai, Marin Cilic in Tokyo, hammered Berdych in Rome, beat Wawrinka in Indian Wells, and beat his contemporary, the higher ranked Dominic Thiem.

Thiem, for his part, had already cut a swathe through the tour, winning three titles in 2015 and another four last year, plus making the semis of Roland Garros, all before he turned 23. But like Dimitrov at the same age, Thiem seemed to hit the buffers, only getting beyond the second round once in his last nine tournaments—his fourth-round effort at the Australian Open.

In Rotterdam this week, he nevertheless earned the No2 seeding, but as luck would have it, he drew Zverev in his first match, and could face either No5 seed Dimitrov or No3 seed Goffin in the semis.

But which of this youthful quartet would outlast the others? Dimitrov had got the better of Goffin in all three previous matches, but the Belgian had a superior record over Thiem of 5-3, who in turn had beaten Zverev in three of their four matches last year. And Zverev had a winning record over Dimitrov, beating the Bulgarian in Indian Wells and Rome last year.

The matches on offer at the Ahoy therefore threw up all kinds of permutations. Goffin was first to prove his mettle, and having failed to win a match in Rotterdam in three previous visits, he sailed into the second round over Andrey Kuznetsov, 6-2, 6-2.

One down, one to go if the Sofia final was to be repeated. But the charismatic Dimitrov found things much tougher against the left-handed serve-and-volley man who beat Andy Murray in Melbourne, the elder Zverev brother, Mischa.

Despite serving at a high level—83%—and making hay on Zverev’s second serve for three break points in the sixth game, Dimitrov could not break against some stunning net play and old-school volley skills. Come the tie-break, Zverev sealed the set, 7-6(4), with both men making far more winners than errors—and that quality would permeate the other two sets.

Now Dimitrov was getting the feel of Zverev’s game, and fired return-of-serve winners down the wings or at the German’s feet. He began to attack the net, too, broke in the fifth and seventh games, and held to love for the set, 6-2.

The pace was breathless, with both taking little time between points and playing first-strike tennis. After a break apiece in the third, Dimitrov got another break in the seventh game, and served out his 15th win of the year, 6-4, with his 58th winner of the match—to just 28 errors.

He next faces Denis Istomin, lately victor over Novak Djokovic but who Dimitrov beat in Australia.

And what of perhaps the most promising rivalry of the group, between friends Zverev and Thiem? Their record suggested this would be close: Neither had won in straight sets against the other, but the confidence of the powerful, rangy teenager seemed to have other ideas this time. He broke twice to race to 4-0 in under a quarter of an hour, suffered one break back, but served out the set, 6-3.

The strong Austrian, with a heavy single-handed backhand modelled on Wawrinka’s powerhouse style, fought back with depth and angle to break in the sixth game of the second and served it out, 6-3.

Both showed their frustration in the third, exchanging early breaks as errors crept in. But Thiem got the break in ninth game, and went through in a flourish, with a backhand down-the-line winner and a volley, 6-4.

Perhaps fatigue played a part for Zverev: He won in doubles as well as singles titles in Montpellier on Sunday, and played doubles this week too. To face Thiem in his opener was a big ask, but the complementary styles of these two made for challenging and intriguing tennis—tennis and a rivalry that promises much for fans in the coming years.

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