In what was unquestionably the finest moment of even his distinguished career, Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov upset world #3 Roger Federer in the US Open quarterfinals. Few gave Dimitrov, once well-known as ‘Baby Fed’ much chance heading into the match. But the Bulgarian, after what has been a tremendously difficult season, clearly believed in himself. That belief survived a dreadful start to the match, which saw him double fault away his first service game of the match.
But if Federer, and his legions of fans inside Arthur Ashe stadium, had then been expecting to sweep his opponent aside, he and they were to prove disappointed. Dimitrov proved unable to rally in the first set, but he clung on to his serve with grim determination to at least keep the score respectable. And in the second, he came out swinging, forcing an early break point. Federer saved it with an ace, but Dimitrov was undeterred. Two games later, he forced more break points and this time he was not to be denied.
Despite having been holding serve comfortably, Dimitrov faltered when serving for the set up 5-3. Federer created two break points of his own and Dimitrov double faulted again to hand Federer a path back to parity. But it was one the great Swiss proved unable to take. His timing deserted him as he sprayed errors throughout the game, including one particularly poor backhand down set point, to surrender his lead in the match.
But Federer, as he so often does, rallied swiftly in the third. Dimitrov lost his concentration in his third service game of the set, giving up three break point chances to Federer. He proved unable to take advantage of them on that occasion, but when Dimitrov found himself in trouble on serve again two games later, he was not able to earn another reprieve. Nor was he able to take advantage of the chances to get back on serve that Federer presented, as a combination of his nerves and Federer’s excellent serving kept him at bay and enabled the five-time former champion to pocket the set.
But in the fourth set, the match turned. Dimitrov managed to steal an early march on Federer and despite coming under fierce pressure, particularly when facing three break back points as he attempted to serve it out, he clung on to send the match into a fifth and deciding set. And there, Federer proved unable to follow. The Swiss took a medical timeout, likely for a back issue, before the decider began, but it proved ineffective. Dimitrov broke early once more and this time Federer did not even threaten a fightback.
The spectators did their best to lift Federer, who has long been a favourite of the New York crowd. But Dimitrov had his man in the dust and he was not about to let him rise. The Swiss, after surrendering a second break, did manage to get on the board in the fifth game of the set, but it was the last defiance of a doomed man and it granted him no more than a brief stay of execution. Dimitrov, who had kept his focus and played some excellent tennis throughout the contest, did not waver at the last, serving the match out to love.
The disappointment of the majority of the crowd was palpable. Many left before the match’s conclusion. Dimitrov, though a fine player and a popular figure on the tour, was not the man they had come to see win. Particularly because it saw another year go by without the long-awaited clash between Federer and his great rival Rafael Nadal at the US Open. Federer too will doubtless be bitterly disappointed. After the exit of top seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic, who fell victim to Stan Wawrinka and a shoulder injury, this had looked a real chance for Federer to end his long wait for a sixth US Open title.
But the Swiss proved unable to overcome hitting over 60 unforced errors and the physical stresses of five-set tennis. His slim chance of reclaiming the year-end #1 ranking has also almost certainly evaporated, whilst Nadal will now consider himself in pole position to further close the gap in the Grand Slam title count. Dimitrov, however, will not care and nor should he. The Bulgarian had lost seven of his last eight matches coming into the US Open and had fallen outside the world’s top 75.
Whilst he may have been the slight favourite up against the Italian veteran Andreas Seppi in the first round, almost no one had expected his run to stretch much further. But now Dimitrov finds himself in the semifinal of a Grand Slam for the third time. And for the first time, he will not find himself up against one of the sport’s Big Three. After a night of magic, and not little mystery, under the lights on Arthur Ashe he might even just start to dream of going all the way.
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