He may not care for the nickname “Baby Fed” any longer, but I don’t think Grigor Dimitrov would mind being described as “in full flight,” a term often associated with Roger Federer. The promising 22-year-old was just that, just when he needed to be against Rafael Nadal—though it was only enough to yield victory of a set, and not a match. The latter would go to Nadal, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2, keeping him unbeaten on hard courts in 2013.
After an uncompetitive opening set, Dimitrov looked like straight-set fodder, unable to consistently press the Spaniard from the baseline and succumbing to patterns that play right into Nadal’s game—primarily the lefty forehand into the Bulgarian’s one-handed backhand. But an unexpected break—due in part to an unexpected, error-filled lapse from Nadal—gave Dimitrov a lifeline, and he followed it up with a love service hold.
The surge was a prelude to what was to come, at 5-4. With the fans sensing the shifting momentum, Dimitrov put Cincy into frenzy with an underspin “squash” shot, hit in midair, to return a Nadal overhead—down the line, for a clean winner. That ignited the crowd and earned Dimitrov a set point, and while he wouldn’t convert it, his elevated form was too much for even Nadal to handle in the subsequent minutes. Dimitrov earned two more set points after Nadal couldn’t handle a cracking inside-out service return at 6-5, and seconds later the match was going the distance.
Such irresistible shotmaking makes Dimitrov’s game and prospects so appealing; the first shot I described is likely being uploaded to YouTube already. But the larger takeaway is that he’s still too up-and-down for his own good. He couldn’t hang with Nadal in the first set, but to his credit fought hard to level the match. But after the changeover, Dimitrov promptly dropped his serve at love—with a double-fault, no less—and once again was staring at an uphill climb. He would never recover.
It was the third set, but Dimitrov’s head was elsewhere. As for Nadal, he had moved on, starting the match over once the decider began. He wasn’t as dominant as when the match began, but left his poor patches of play behind on that very same changeover. It is the mentality that has taken him to the highest of tennis’ highs and helped him recover from some well-documented lows.
Nadal’s backhand and movement were impressive tonight, and his Wimbledon loss already seems like ancient history. But the other takeaway of this match is that it takes a comprehensive performance to Nadal—something his next opponent, Federer, knows all too well. He’s 10-20 against his rival, and even “full flight” isn't enough sometimes. But considering Nadal's form, it's in Federer's best interest to reach such heights—and remain there for longer than a few games.