Grigor Dimitrov and Dominic Thiem: A rivalry evolves in Madrid and London
For this second part of a three-part review of the men's season, the tour has moved on to the clay and grass swing of summer
2017 saw the flowering of a budding rivalry between two players who have had expectations heaped on their shoulders over recent seasons, but who had faced one another just once before, early last year.
But these two, who are carrying the single-handed backhand banner for the 90s generation, began to make up for that in 2017.
The elegant and charismatic Dimitrov would take victory over the quietly-spoke, super-fit Thiem to three sets in Brisbane, then lose to him from a set up in a pulsating final tie-breaker in Madrid, 6-7(9). And their third and final match of 2017 would also go to three sets and to Dimitrov.
In my own words
The huge Dimitrov grin reappeared as he took the applause of the centre court, but he was almost lost for words: “I’m not going to lie—I was pretty nervous, my first match out here. I’m just very grateful to win that match, especially in that manner. It’s never easy to come out here and play for the first time. Entering into this tournament was a dream of mine and it wasn’t just to compete—I want to win. Things seem to be going the right way so far.”
And for Dimitrov in London, they went from good to better to best: Having won a career-first Masters title in Cincinnati, he went on to claim the tour’s unofficial ‘fifth Major’ against the best of the best, the Nitto ATP Finals. He and Thiem enter 2018 in the top five, with two wins apiece, and with a tantalizing hint of what this rivalry may hold.
The brothers Zverev: Halle and beyond
It is hard to say what the odds were that the brothers Zverev, 30-year-old Mischa and 20-year-old Sascha, would face their idol Federer on the grass of Wimbledon within a fortnight of doing just the same in Halle. Slim, certainly.
They became the first pair of brothers to reach the third round at the same Wimbledon in 33 years, a situation that seemed unlikely just a year ago, with Mishca ranked outside the top 150 while his rising-star teenage brother Sascha was already seeded at Wimbledon.
Yet years before, Mischa’s career looked almost as promising the young Sascha’s: He reached 45 in the rankings at the age of 21 before a wrist injury saw him sink outside the top 1,000 in 2015 and barely climb inside the top 200 at the start of 2016.
Despite these different trajectories and their 10-year age gap, however, the brothers credit each other with much of their success—“We really support each other”—and shared the same idol. Sascha explained:
“I mean Roger is my brother’s favourite player by far, so whatever your brother likes, you like. Also, when I got to know [Roger], he’s even more my idol now.”
In turn, that younger brother inspired the older one, and this year, Mischa’s old-fashioned, left-handed net-attacking tennis took him past Murray and into his first Major quarter-final in Australia: He then fell to Federer. In early summer, he came through qualifying to reach the Geneva final, beating Nishikori, and nearly beating top seed Wawrinka, too.
He reached the semis on Stuttgart’s grass, and then played Federer again in Halle, took it to a tie-break in the first set, before losing out 6-4 in the second.
Federer would go on to meet the younger Zverev in the Halle final and impose himself on the German star to win his ninth title at the tournament, while the Zverevs combined to win the runners-up trophy in doubles.
In the event, the younger Zverev did not keep his appointment with Federer at Wimbledon, though the Swiss did beat the elder Zverev—and it was fast, furious and fun.
In my own words
The statistics, even if on the generous side, spoke volumes for the style and standard of tennis played. The style, attacking and explosive, produced 20 winners from Zverev and 61 from Federer. The standard at which they played ensured their unforced errors remained a staggering nine and seven respectively. And between them, they had won 57 points at the net. It was, in short, what grass-court tennis is all about.
The elder brother would, then, reach a career-high 25, while young Sascha picked up his second Masters trophy by beating a hampered Federer in Montreal and was at No3 by November: Certainly a year to remember for the brothers Zverev.
Sam Querrey and Marin Cilic work their socks off at Wimbledon
Good things come to those who wait: well they did for the big American, Sam Querrey. 2017 saw him reach a career-high No13 at the age of 30, after running to his first Wimbledon semi-final and first US Open quarter-final, and beat Thiem and Nadal to claim the Acapulco title.
At Wimbledon, he survived back-breaking challenges: five sets against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, five more against Kevin Anderson, and another five to beat Murray. How much did he have left for fellow 6ft 6in powerhouse, Marin Cilic?
In my own words
The tall Croat had dropped just nine points in 78 first serves and not a one of the 19 in the final set, and he ended with 70 winners to 21 unforced errors.
The tennis he and Querrey produced had drawn gasps of admiration, and was a great advertisement for big, old-school power grass tennis. The question was, would Berdych be able to deploy the same power against the seven-time champion Federer? Cilic could kick back and watch.
Of course, history will record that Federer did not just survive Berdych, but go on to win a record 19th Major, a record eighth Wimbledon, without dropping a set. In terms of the tennis played in that final by a blister-broken Cilic, however, it would not compare with what had gone before.
Querrey went on to make hay through the summer’s hard courts, winning again in Mexico at Los Cabos and finally succumbing to another resurgent big man, Anderson, in New York. That quarter-final took three and a half hours, a few tie-breakers, and carried the South African to his first Major final. However, Nadal, by now No1 in the world, would not be denied his second Major of a sensational comeback season.
Part 3 will follow this weekend, with the WTA review beginning Monday.