His idol was Roger Federer, and his tennis showed it: a beautiful single-handed backhand, the same service stance, and plenty of touch and variety around the court. He used the same make of racket, had the same clothing sponsor, sported a bandana, and was a crowd-pleaser almost at once.
But such credentials bring similar expectations, and it took time for the then 17-year-old to grow into his game and into the comparisons that used to dog him at every turn.
He has long tired of those comparisons, yet has remained a popular presence, and sure enough, he did harness his prodigious talent to climb the tennis ladder. It took him until 2014, after 22, to get beyond the second round at a Major—the quarters at the Australian Open and the semis at Wimbledon, having not won his first title, in Stockholm, until the autumn before.
By now he was inside the top 10, and would return there in 2017 with a semi run in Australia, and two very significant victories: He broke the ‘Big Four’ stranglehold to win a Masters title in Cincinnati and then the ATP Finals, topping out his year as world No3.
Dimitrov was by now 26, but this was not the launch-pad to a first Major but rather another dip in form and confidence as a shoulder injury took the toll of several withdrawals and multiple first-round losses—seven of them, including the grass of Queen’s and Wimbledon.
Such have been the struggles this season that he entered he Australian Open ranked 78, his lowest since June 2012, and on a 1-7 streak of losses. He had not made any semi-finals since Monte-Carlo 18 months ago, so when he dropped into the Federer quarter, in a section that promised No12 seed Borna Coric, then No7 seed Kei Nishikori, and also the much-admired young Australian Alex de Minaur, few anticipated that Dimitrov would reach a quarter-final showdown with Federer.
Yet things began to pan out rather differently. Five-time champion Federer, who came to New York with just one hard-court win in the bank since his final finish at Wimbledon, looked undercooked and slow out of the blocks, in his opening two matches. He dropped his first sets in the cool late evening against Simit Nagal then under the subduing roof against Damir Dzumhur.
But with the midday sun over his shoulder in Rounds 3 and 4, he looked a different player—full of attack, finding the lines, serving accurately, and thus beating Dan Evans and then David Goffin for the combined loss of only nine games.
Meanwhile Dimitrov was playing himself into form, enjoyed the bonus of a walkover from Coric, and did not play a single seed in reaching the quarters. Yet against Federer, 10 years his senior, he faced a 7-0 deficit. Indeed the Swiss came into a record-making 56th Major quarter-final with a combined 26-0 on hard courts over Dimitrov and both his potential semi-final opponents, Stan Wawrinka and Daniel Medvedev.
What the packed Arthur Ashe arena did not know was that Federer had picked up a niggle in his upper back, though he afterwards assured the media that he was well enough to play—and once committed, the Swiss has never retired mid-match in almost 1,500 main-tour outings. He was in it to win it—and with the only break of the first set for a 3-0 lead, he made a positive start, 6-3.
But Dimitrov was starting to flow, clearly determined to keep on the offensive, and reduced his error count to just six for the set. He got the early break, and although he failed to serve it out, he broke again to level the match, 6-4.
Dimitrov’s level dipped in the third—he could work only two winners—but it was already clear that Federer’s form was far from the level he had produced against Goffin, and not once in the match did he make more winners than errors.
That trend continued, and while he won the third set, 6-3, helped a little by Dimitrov’s dip, Federer’s form slipped in the fourth, and the errors mounted up—19 for 10 winners. Dimitrov broke in the first game, and punished Federer through a marathon eighth game in which the Swiss saved seven break points.
Federer then had several chances to break to level the set, but Dimitrov remained resistant, held, and took the set, 6-4. And Federer’s physical difficulties became very clear when he took a 10-minute medical time out off-court for what transpired to be a neck and back problem. But it was clearly not enough, and his statistics became dismal: 3/8 net points won, just 52 percent of serves in the box, only four winners for 13 errors.
To his credit, Dimitrov remained focused and aggressive, broke twice for a 4-0 lead in the fifth set, and served it out, 6-2, after three and a quarter hours.
Unsurprisingly, it was a subdued former champion who tried to deflect questions about his injury in favour of his opponent’s performance:
“I just needed to try to loosen it up, crack it, and see if it was going to be better… But this is Grigor’s moment and not my body’s moment, so… it’s OK.”
He concluded: “I think it’s still been a positive season. Disappointing now, but I’ll get back up, I’ll be alright.” In truth, it did not look as though he was entirely convinced.
But make no mistake, this was a fine result for Dimitrov, one that will surely boost his confidence after some taxing months.
He said: “I think the past six, seven months have been pretty rough for me. It was that low that I don’t even want to go there anymore. It was just obviously injury, losing points, ranking. That’s the lowest point of any player.
“[But] I kept on believing again in the work, the rehab I had to put behind my shoulder, the exercise, the practice. There were so many things I had to adjust. Next thing, you’re almost end of the year, you have a result like that. It’s pretty special to me.”
And special not simply for turning round a tough season: This will be his first ever semi-final at the US Open, and his first Major semi since January 2017. It has already boosted him back to around 25 in the ranks and another win will take him well inside the top 20.
And he may be thankful, too, that he does not face Wawrinka for the third straight tournament: He lost in the first round to the Swiss in both Montreal and Cincinnati, in the third round of the French Open, and also in the first round both here and at Wimbledon last year.
Instead, he plays Medvedev, but the 23-year-old Russian has been the form player of the US Open Series, with three back-to-back finals in Washington, Montreal and Cincinnati, which he won, and now his first Major semi-final.
Medvedev looked out on his feet in the early stages of his contest with Wawrinka, but the Swiss was also less than 100 percent, though had set point to take the opening tie-breaker. However, the Russian sealed that, and the second set, too, 6-3, but Wawrinka pounded back for the third, 6-3, and seemed ready to turn fortunes in his favour.
Yet Medvedev refused to bow, even with both thighs taped—and he later affirmed that his legs hurt from the get-go—and he made just three errors in the final 6-1 set for victory.
But can the Russian manage his 50th match-win of the year to extend his record-making run—and his Wawrinka victory assured him of a first qualification for the ATP Finals and the No4 ranking—or will the buoyed-up Dimitrov finally make his first Major final? The wind looks set fair for the Bulgarian.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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