This afternoon I burped and realized Grigor Dimitrov is playing tennis as well as anyone alive. Lesser players come at him and might startle him for a little—like Mischa Zverev did in the first round here at Rotterdam—but after the opening set, he remembers that he can swarm the whole entire court, can spike winners from any square inch of it, and it’s all over.
Today’s victim was Denis Istomin, the bespectacled Uzbek last seen embarrassing Novak Djokovic in the second round of the Australian Open. Istomin’s crafty flat shot-making earned him a set point in the first set tiebreak, but Dimitrov squashed that chance, took the set, and skewered him in the second to win 7-6(7), 6-1.
Of the 17 matches Dimitrov has played in 2017, he’s lost just one: a five-set Aussie Open semifinal with Rafael Nadal, which presented him tantalizing break opportunities in the final set. Considering those moments lured out the steeliest defense we’ve seen from Balding Rafa, Dimitrov shouldn’t be too hard on himself, but in a recent interview, he confessed that the memory “hunts me down” in the night.
“Sometimes I text my coach in the middle of the night and I say: Listen, I am watching this match. Do you think I could have done something better? He is like: go back to sleep, it’s 3:00 AM. Then I go: Yeah, but I dream that I can hit that forehand inside out. Then I am looking at it the next morning and gosh I could have really hit it inside out.”
That should answer any questions about motivation—the sort of questions that dogged him for the last two-odd years, after he made his debut in the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2014, then disappeared into a well, which he started to clamber out of last fall in New York, and fucking leapt out of at the dawn of the new year.
Nobody in the relatively thin field here in Rotterdam looks likely to halt his momentum. In the third round he’ll face David Goffin, who Dimitrov has beaten twice this year, most recently this past weekend. Later he might face Dominic Thiem, who he beat a few weeks ago at Brisbane, and whose taxing power baseline style Dimitrov can tidily outhit. Top seed Marin Cilic, bleeding sets to lesser players, looks eminently beatable. This title is Grigor’s to win.
“I could have won the semifinals. And I think I could have beaten Roger too,” he said after detailing his Nadal nightmares. If I’d seen that quote even six weeks ago I’d have shrugged it off as delusion from Baby Fed, but it scans very differently right now. It sounds like the truth.