Grigor Dimitrov has won the Cincinnati Open trophy, his first Masters 1000. The 26-year-old is back in the Top 10, a mere 320 points from fellow one-hander Dominic Thiem’s position at #8. Dimitrov won the title without dropping a set, defeating Feliciano Lopez, Juan Martin del Potro, Yuichi Sugita, and 2013 Cincy finalist John Isner on his route to the final against Aussie Nick Kyrgios.
The tournament had a rough start on the men’s side, with several withdrawals that left the draw with only a few of the ATP’s Top Ten, including only one of the Big Four — Rafa Nadal — in attendance. The odds seemed high for a bad final, with an easy win for Rafa or a match-up of lower-ranked players that no one really wanted to see.
Instead, the Western and Southern Open ended up with a fantastic final match, with two guys that have displayed incredible talent on the court but, for various reasons, haven’t produced the consistently impressive results many expect from such gifted tennis stars. Both impressively banished this week the criticism that non-Big Four players often don’t capitalize on decimated draws like Cincy’s.
In recent years, Dimitrov has too often been the better player in a match he ultimately didn’t win. Seemingly obvious victories slipped through his fingers time and again. Not this week. The Bulgarian surprised tennis fans with his tenacity throughout the tournament, reaching those pivotal moments in sets and getting the job done — break points won and saved, match points won — rather than faltering spectacularly.
Dimitrov himself considered his focus and composure the “key” to victory in the final. But what about those nerves that always crop up at the ends of matches? How was he feeling trying to serve for the title at 6-5?
“Oh, Jesus,” Grigor half-laughed, half-sighed in response. He thought things were going well, he explained, until his arm suddenly turned into a lead weight.
“I barely lift my arm to serve and the ball was like, bottom of the net. I was, ‘That’s not good, Grigor. You need to do more.’
“Moments like that, it’s so different, like, there is just so many things are going through your head. You don’t even think about the win. That’s the problem. I wish I was thinking, ‘oh wow, great, I’m going to have the trophy’ or something. You think of, like, ‘God, I just need to put the ball in the court.’ It’s so simple, but the weight of your shoulder and your arm, it just multiplies by a lot.”
While stress in the final game is easy to imagine, anyone who witnessed Dimitrov’s ridiculous defense, wickedly net-skimming slices, and deft touch at net wouldn’t expect that he felt under pressure throughout the entire match. Dimitrov heaped praise on his opponent Kyrgios, praising his pinpoint serve and the “unbelievable amount of power from pretty much any position.”
“That’s what keeps you on your toes pretty much the whole time. Even if he’s not playing well, there is still, like, weapons and certain plays that he can go to. You know, you have to be aware of that.”
Dimitrov was proud of how he dealt with that challenge, and the patience he found to just wait for his chances and capitalize when they arrived. So does this now mean he’s starting to finally meet the high standards of those who wanted him to be the next You Know Who? Best to not go there.
As a journalist began her query with, “There was a lot of expectation upon you earlier in your career–” Dimitrov cut in with a sharp, “Do you think?” There was a hint of humor in it, but a really dark humor, with some understandable bitterness at having long had to pay for the “Baby Fed” nickname he didn’t create or promote.
In fact, he tries to hold off the question he thinks is coming, with an insistence that “I’m not going to even talk about that.”
But when the topic is simply on the opportunity to take advantage and dominate the tour now that the Big Four are not as invincible as they once were, Dimitrov replies that he’s not the only one out there trying to do so. He’s well aware that there’s plenty of competition to fill the void, as it were, and from younger guys that still have all their potential ahead of them.
“You just never know what’s going to happen in the upcoming years, for sure. I just like to take my chances the way they are right now. … I mean I expect from myself every time, of course. But to speak for that dominance that early, in terms of this is just my first Masters, I mean, this is sixth, seventh title that I have won already. We need to — I think I need to do a lot more to be able to answer that question a bit more properly.”
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) July 24, 2017
One thing Grigor hopes to do more of is learn from one of those Big Four guys. Asked about his time at Rafa Nadal’s new tennis academy this summer, the new Cincy champ was effusive in his praise.
“I mean, to me, he’s always been one of my inspirations. Sometimes when I’m down in the match, if I’m complaining or something, I was like, ‘Would Rafa do that? I don’t think so.’
“The week I spent with him was just pretty amazing. Just to spend time with him, not even on the court. Even off the court. We were having dinners together and just going to the beach and stuff.
“So it was great. In the same time, like the first half morning, we’re just practicing nonstop. I swear to God, nonstop from the early morning. I was like, ‘Whoa, can we have at least the afternoon off?’
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— Tennis Inside Out (@TennisInsideOut) August 20, 2017
Dimitrov, who said he was “thankful” for the opportunity of spending that kind of time with “one of the greatest out there,” also felt inspired to text Rafa soon after this big win, to ask to get together again sometime in the future. We can’t help thinking that if one week with Nadal leads to a Masters win, maybe two weeks will net Grigor a Slam.
Possibly encouraged by the Slam champion’s graciousness, Dimitrov apparently paid it forward by being there for Kyrgios this week. After the two shared a lengthy hug at the net after match point, people were curious what sort of dialogue was happening in that moment.
Dimitrov kept things fairly vague, saying that “these things usually stay between the players.” But he did indicate that he’d been a sounding board for Kyrgios that week — a Kyrgios that just this week talked about his struggle with motivation on tour.
“I was there, I guess, and he shared [some things that were on his mind.] I mean, all I can think of is just help a friend out, not even a colleague at the time. I just said what I thought, and I guess I might have helped him. Thank God today I did not (laughs), but, I mean, on the court there’s a difference, for sure, a different kind of talk. But off the court, we are all just regular people who just happen to be good at tennis.”
And how good does Grigor hope to be?
“I’m aiming to just get better every single day, to give 100% for myself when I get out there on the court. Last, but not least, just not to disappoint my team and just work. This is just my opportunity right now. And again, how everything else will unfold, I can’t tell you.”