Cincinnati 2017: Grigor Dimitrov downs Nick Kyrgios in battle for first Masters
Grigor Dimitrov beats Nick Kyrgios in straight sets to win the Cincinnati Masters title
Every cloud has a silver lining, though in the days before the Cincinnati Masters got under way, the fans and sponsors much have wondered what they had done to deserve so many blows.
Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori were all missing from Ohio along with every other remaining tournament this year.
Andy Murray continued to rehab the painful hip that dogged his grass season, and Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic followed with injuries of their own. Then tournament favourite and multiple Cincinnati champion, Roger Federer, withdrew with a back problem picked up in Montreal, and Gael Monfils fell ill.
An early culling of other seeds took out Tomas Berdych, Jack Sock, Sam Querrey, David Goffin and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in their first matches.
Prominent at the top of the draw was Rafael Nadal, assured of regaining the No1 ranking in the absence of Murray without playing a ball. That proved to be just as well: He went out in the quarters, as did the next seed Dominic Thiem.
But a silver lining was beginning to shine through, as bright sparks from a fresh generation lit up proceedings. It would, indeed, all come down to two of the most charismatic shot-makers in the game, two men who burst through the ranks with youthful flair, only to discover how tough it is to consolidate a place among the elite of the sport.
Nick Kyrgios, a flamboyant shot-maker and an unpredictable character, made the quarter-finals in his first Wimbledon appearance, still only 19 years old, and then the quarters at the Australian Open the next January. Then, after repeated dips in confidence and injury problems, he fired off three titles last year to reach No13.
This year, he veered between victories over Djokovic in Acapulco and Indian Wells, one of the finest matches of the Miami Open, losing in three sets to Federer, and then just one win in five tournaments before last week’s Montreal Masters.
But in Cincinnati, Kyrgios again produced some stunning tennis to down a stream of tough opponents: Goffin, Ivo Karlovic, Nadal, and a resurgent David Ferrer. Thus he arrived at his first Masters final, where he would face another debutant: Grigor Dimitrov.
The elegant Bulgarian with the one-handed backhand made the semis of Wimbledon in 2014, plus the quarters in Australia, two Masters semis, and three titles on three different surfaces.
He was inside the top 10 by the age of 23, but as expectations and media demands grew, his confidence also wavered: his multitude of gifts with a tennis racket proved tough to master, it seemed.
This year, though, a refocused Dimitrov emerged: his first two titles in three years, a couple of points short of the Australian Open final before losing to Nadal in five tight sets, a couple of first-round losses, but then in Cincinnati, strong wins over Juan Martin del Potro, Feliciano Lopez and John Isner saw him arrive in good shape without a set dropped for his own first Masters final.
Who would finally get that big breakthrough?
The match, as anticipated, was packed with some fine crowd-pleasing rallies and thrilling shot-making, but Dimitrov’s variety, attack and touch yielded early results. After fending off the only break points he faced in the match, he turned the tables to break in the sixth game of the first set, and served out the first set to love, 6-3.
The second set was tightly contested, but Dimitrov kept the Kyrgios fire-power at bay with some athletic defence-turned-attack, and used his skimming backhand slice to force errors from the Australian—31 in all.
It took only one tired game from Kyrgios to determine the set and match, as two double faults landed him in trouble at 5-5. He hammered a forehand long to give up the break, and Dimitrov served it out, 7-5, for a breakthrough moment not just for Dimitrov but for Bulgaria—the nation’s first ever Masters champion.
There were generous words on both sides from the two men, who will move on to the US Open with a spring in their step and still more expectation on their shoulders—as will the even younger talent, Alexander Zverev, who won his second Masters title in Montreal last week.
The old hands, then, will have to look to their laurels: new No1 Nadal, former No1 Murray, and current No3 Federer will all be chasing their own piece of history in New York yet again.
But success breeds success, and Dimitrov and Zverev in particular have tasted it this month. Both are now in contention for the World Tour Finals and both will surely have ambitions at the last Major of the year.