David Goffin wins first title in three years in Shenzhen to keep up bid for London finale

David Goffin wins the Shenzhen Open to secure his first title triumph in three years

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David Goffin is hoping to qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals Photo: Marianne Bevis

Three years ago, the slight figure of the then 23-year-old David Goffin seemed destined for the top 10 within months. In the weeks after Wimbledon, he won three Challenger titles on the bounce and followed them with his first main-tour title in Kitzbuhel—ranked just 78.

Come the indoor swing and he won in Metz, then a home-based Challenger, and made the final in Basel.

He edged inside the top 20 at the start of 2015, but further titles remained elusive through some consolidating results—a couple of finals, a fourth-round at Wimbledon, a first Masters quarter-final in Rome, and the final of the Davis Cup. And last year, he reached his first Major quarter-final at Roland Garros after back-to-back Masters semis in Indian Wells and Miami.

But it was not until the start of this year that he finally made the top 10 after a strong start to the season: quarters at the Australian Open, finals in Sofia and Rotterdam, then semis in Monte-Carlo and quarters in Madrid.

Were it not for an accident at Roland Garros that injured his ankle to ended his chances in the third round, he may well have asserted himself still more strongly inside the top 10.

As it was, he missed the entire grass swing, and only slowly worked his way back into shape ahead of a fourth-round run at the US Open. Since then, though, he has been putting in the miles, perhaps eyeing a chance to qualify for the prestigious World Tour Finals in London for the first time. With the likes of Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori out for the remainder of the season, the door has opened just a fraction for some fresh blood—and why not that slight figure from Belgium?

So he was one of a small clutch of London hopefuls to squeeze in Europe’s hard courts—in Metz—before heading to the Asian swing, and that after two gruelling matches in Davis Cup. And his pair of four-set wins helped take Belgium to the final for the second time in three years.

He opted to play Shenzhen before the more lucrative 500s in Beijing and Tokyo and the Masters in Shanghai—a tough call even before the vast distances and jet lag took their toll, not to mention the high temperature and humidity.

Yet where higher ranked London contenders, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, lost early in China, he made it to the final, and had to dig very deep to overcome the unpredictable talent of Alexandr Dolgopolov.

The man from the Ukraine this year had a title from two finals to his name, but not for the first time, he had been plagued by injuries. He had to retire in five matches due to hip, leg and ankle injuries, and fell to 89 in the rankings until some post-Wimbledon wins.

So the two men had lot in common, including sub-6ft height and sub 160lb weight, and their speed and creativity made for some entertaining tennis.

It began at a lively pace, both going for their shots in short, lively points. Dolgopolov threw in a breath-taking drop-shot winner to hold serve, and Goffin, despite his modest size, pitched in a handful of precision aces. The Belgian then wound up the attack in the seventh game to work the first break-point of the match, and surged in for a drive volley winner to break, 4-3.

Dolgopolov went after Goffin in the next game, forcing deuce and then a break-back point, but faced another fine serve down the T and the Belgian consolidated, 5-3. Just over half an hour, and the set was done, 6-4.

Dusk had now fallen, but still the conditions were punishing, the humidity close to 80 percent and the temperature at 30C. The Belgian is one of a rare breed of player who does not wear sweat bands, but he dripped in sweat. Even the chair umpire was forced to towel down before the next set got under way.

Dologopolov came under immediate pressure as Goffin lasered the ball wide and deep down both lines. By the time the Ukrainian sat down at 2-1, he had fought off no fewer than five break points, but he was about to get a second wind, broke Goffin in the next game, and held comfortably, 4-1.

The Ukrainian resisted some fine angled drives to his backhand before throwing in his signature drop shot, and although Goffin read it, he could not handle the following lob: Another break, 1-5.

The Belgian’s left knee had been taped all week, and with the Tokyo draw beginning tomorrow, he would surely prefer to get this done in straight sets, and it showed in his tennis. He got both breaks back and levelled at 5-5 with his ninth and 10th ace and an overhead winner.

Come the tie-break, with both playing near flawless tennis, Goffin came in for a touch volley winner, 4-3, Dolgopolov matched it with net winner, and then upped the ante with an ace. The Ukrainian found a brilliant angle off Goffin’s serve to take a 6-5 lead, and a backhand winner down the line levelled the match, 7-6(5).

There was nothing to separate them in the third, with winners coming from all quarters. Not a chink appeared until the eighth game, with Goffin 4-3 up courtesy of a love hold and a 14th ace. Neither could afford an error, but Dolgopolov netted a couple of forehands, and was rushed into another as Goffin followed a precision backhand into the net to break to love, 5-3.

Dolgopolov still ran Goffin ragged across the baseline, 30-30, but the Belgian pulled off the victory with a backhand pass down the line, 6-3, after more than two hours.

Each had generous words for the other, understanding the trials of returning to the tour after injury problems.

Dolgopolov: “We both had injuries at the same time so it’s nice to see him play good tennis again.”

Goffin: “We had tough injuries, and I know how tough it is to come back. It was a tough fight today but if you play like this, you will be back in the final with a better result.”

With that, and his first title after six finals and three years, Goffin had to get his skates on: First recovery and press, then a six-hour plus flight to his next scheduled destination, Tokyo, where play gets under way tomorrow.

And unlike the women finalists who headed to Beijing this weekend, there are no recuperative byes into the second round. Goffin faces big challengers immediately in the shape of Feliciano Lopez, Ivo Karlovic, with fellow London contender Sam Querrey in the quarters.

Now up to joint 10th in the ranks and 13th in the Race—only five points short of Andy Murray and in the knowledge that two men ahead of him are out of contention—Goffin has plenty of incentives to keep him going. The trouble is, so do half a dozen men in front of him.

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