For the better part of this week, it looked like Grigor Dimitrov was ready to shake himself out of his stupor—he’d lost his opening match at the last three tournaments, c’mon man—and make these frenzied blogs look a little less stupid. He started this Madrid Open looking like a whole player again, beating two tough outs, the versatile Philipp Kohlschreiber and servebot Ivo Karlovic, in straight sets, before running into Dominic Thiem. As both a Grigor Dimitrov stan and a Dominic Thiem skeptic, I felt doubly owned by this 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(9) result, but it remains one of the better matches of the year.
On paper, Dimitrov and Thiem share some features—a one-handed backhand and a middle-of-the pack status, age-wise—but in actual gameplay they could not be more different. Thiem practically plays tennis from the first row of the stands. His ideal court might be situated in an island of pure, uninterrupted clay, with lines drawn for the court but no stands or backstops or viewers to hinder his relentless backpedaling. Thiem returns serve from so far behind the baseline that today he practically stumbled over a linesman. At his very best, he camps out deep in the court, relying on decent lateral movement to line himself up behind the ball, giving himself plenty of time to set up his heavy groundstrokes, like Stan Wawrinka in miniature. But no one, not even Stan, hits a more effortful stroke that Thiem, who heaves his body at every routine ball with his dying breath. No one, in general, puts more effort into the game—he plays perhaps the most congested tournament schedule on tour, despite his physically taxing game.
Grigor Dimitrov, meanwhile, prefers to prowl the baseline, playing an offensive, all-court game in the vein of Roger Federer, the player to whom he’s regularly compared, though he’s yet to taste even a fraction of Fed’s success. He can draw on pretty groundstrokes, resourceful defense, and buttery touch to craft a point. From Dimitrov’s racket spring what-the-fuck half-volleys, hyper-aggressive approach shots, finesse volleys. He can win a point from any position on the court, and seems not to prefer any one spot to the others. Basically, Dimitrov wields a wand to Thiem’s cudgel.
But when you line them up on opposite sides of the court, both parties are happy to hit the fuzz off the tennis ball, producing some mind-melting exchanges. Watch Dimitrov work his way back into the rally with a little flicked half-volley that robs Thiem of any time to react and immediately puts him on the defensive for the rest of the point.
This forehand on the run is very hard to execute—it takes a loose, liquid wrist to gin up all the top spin that brings that ball sinking back down into the court.
These two consecutive points from the second set neatly encapsulate the contrast in styles. Shot: Dimitrov working Thiem all over the court, then sinking low to scoop a sweet volley.
Chaser: Thiem walloping two forehands, down both sidelines, about as hard as you’ll ever see. Against a clever defender like Dimitrov, Thiem was eager to end points early with his imposing power.
Though this aggression did produce a lot of errors, it was probably a wise tactical move for Thiem, because once you gift Dimitrov any opportunity to get back into the point, he can start wrenching away control of the point with big forehands, until you cough up a short ball for him to dispose of.
After some mutual breaks of serve in the third set, they landed at a tense tiebreak that brought out some of the best tennis from both players.
Not long after the above rally, Dimitrov would get five match points, but he failed to capitalize on any of them, treating his fans to one of the excruciating sensations that sports fandom has to offer. Chalk it up to choking, nothing new for Dimitrov—recall his loss to Jack Sock at Indian Wells despite four match points of his own—but credit is owed to this absurdly gutsy shot-making, while down match point.
Now that my jaw’s finally starting to unclench, I can concede that this was a richly deserved win.