This match might have been billed as a metaphorical Federer Family Feud: On one side stood Federer’s little brother of Swiss tennis, Stan Wawrinka; on the other stood his stylistic off-spring, Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, the man known, to his increasing chagrin, as Baby Fed. In the end, while the baby of the family showed off his usual flashes of brilliance, the older, stronger brother wore him down in three sets, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Thus ends Dimitrov’s run in Madrid. He didn’t last past the round of 16, but it still qualifies as a breakthrough, because of his win over Novak Djokovic on Tuesday (throw in the public “canoodling” with girlfriend Maria Sharapova, and the 21-year-old had a breakthrough week on two fronts).
For the better part of two sets, Dimitrov followed his upset of Djokovic with another impressively mature performance. In winning the first and getting to 4-4 in the second against Wawrinka, he showed that he can do the solid as well as the spectacular. Dimitrov won by grinding with his cross-court forehand, scrambling from far back in the court, hitting high and heavy and deep, and finding clutch serves when he needed them. It’s those aspects of tennis, as much or more than his flair and hands, that will be the key to a future in the Top 20 or Top 10 or Top 5.
But Dimitrov isn’t there yet. He pulled out a couple of tough holds in the middle of the second set, but he couldn’t do it forever. Wawrinka, playing with a steadily rising aggression, broke him for the set at 4-5 and lost just one more game. On Tuesday, Dimitrov had been helped by the roars from the crowd; today those same cheers and chants, from a small Bulgarian contingent, may have worked against him. Wawrinka was bothered by the noise they made during points, and he asked the chair umpire to tell them to be quiet. The chair umpire refused. Wawrinka asked again. Again the umpire refused. This testy back-and-forth went on through a game and an entire changeover. Unfortunately for Dimitrov, Wawrinka took out his frustration out on the match. He played the last set and a half with a defiant edge that sharpened his play.
Annoyance aside, Wawrinka also showed that he’s still stronger, and still hits a heavier ball, than Dimitrov; when he cut back on the errors in the third set, Stan controlled the rallies. The physical and psychological sides of the game—strength, stamina, mental endurance—are what the Bulgarian will have to continue to improve. He has the surface flash, now he needs to build the substance beneath it. For example: At 3-3 in the second, with momentum on his side, Dimitrov made two brilliant plays to reach break point on Wawrinka’s serve. He floated to his left and hit an inside-out forehand drop shot for a winner, and followed that up with a deceptive slice backhand down the line that fooled Wawrinka and also went for a winner. But at break point, Dimitrov’s return caught the tape and fell back. Despite the glory of those two earlier shots, he lost the game.
Could this end up being a breakthrough week for the other, older member of the metaphorical Federer family? It has the makings: Wawrinka won in Portugal this weekend, and beat Andy Murray in Monte Carlo to begin the clay season. Now he’ll get another shot at the man who took him out in three sets in Monte Carlo, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.