Grigor Dimitrov, who used to be good, is not anymore. The 28-year-old Bulgarian is stuck in a Groundhog Day fugue. Almost every day Dimitrov wakes up, goes to work, and has to play Stan Wawrinka in the first round of a tournament. It’s deeply unpleasant. It’s what he did last week in Montreal (he lost), and it’s what he did today in Cincinnati (he lost). It’s also what he did at the U.S. Open last year (he lost), and Wimbledon last year (he lost).
Over the last 13 months, Dimitrov has drawn the big-hitting, major-winning Wawrinka five times—only one came later than the first round—and lost every time. It’s terrible luck to face a player that good that early in that many events, but it’s not just Wawrinka causing him woes. There’s also his troublesome right shoulder, and literally whoever is standing across the net.
Ranked No. 3 in the world as recently as last season, Dimitrov has lost to seven players ranked outside the top 50 this season, including No. 405 Kevin King. Due to the single-elimination, seeded structure of tournaments, it’s very unusual to see a top player with a season record anywhere near .500. Dimitrov is now 12-15 in 2019, ranked No. 74, and will slip further come next week. This is all surreal to see from a guy who two years ago won a Masters title and looked fit to contend for the post-Big Three majors (if there will ever be any post-Big Three majors).
A flexible, agile, and fluid player who used to be called Baby Fed due to similar technique—their tactics don’t bear nearly as much resemblance—Dimitrov lately looks confidence-free and error-prone. His serve has been the most statistically troubling issue. This season he is holding serve 80 percent of the time, compared to the 87 percent of his breakout season in 2017. Looking at the percentage of points won on his first and second serves, both marks have dipped by about 4 percent compared to that 2017 season, per Tennis Abstract.
Today, staring down Wawrinka all over again, Dimitrov played a solid first set, then a decent second set, then dissolved early in the third. He lost 20 of 22 points in one disastrous stretch to go down 1-4. Suddenly, his survival mechanism kicked in. Wawrinka had three chances to serve out the match—including match points at 5-2—but Dimitrov broke back each time. The Bulgarian eked out a tiebreak with some incredible points, and this was the best:
In the tiebreak, Wawrinka earned another match point, 32 minutes after his last, and he cashed out with a 138 mph ace to win 5-7, 6-4, 7-6(4), escaping a collapse of his own, and heading to the handshake looking like he’d just pulled his head out of a bucket. Dimitrov is all too familiar with this particular Wawrinka handshake, but this time he at least showed signs of life. There may be some hope yet for this talented player stuck in a baffling funk.