In hindsight, it probably happened the way it had to happen. Roger Federer won his first meeting with the man known as Baby Fed, Grigor Dimitrov, today in Federer’s hometown of Basel, 6-3, 7-6 (2). That the maestro would find a way to beat his stylistic understudy in their inaugural match wasn’t a surprise, and neither was the nervy, see-saw way it played out.
Dimitrov, who was coming off his first career title, in Stockholm last week, started with a confident service hold. Federer, who has rarely played his best tennis this season, started by double faulting and going down 0-40 in his own opening service game. But in what would turn out to be the theme of the evening, Federer saved those three break chances, and two more for good measure, to hold. Of those five points, Dimitrov had a chance to win just one of them. Faced with a hanging mid-court forehand, he massaged it cautiously rather than ripping it, and Federer hung around long enough to elicit a forehand error. Dimitrov would earn 10 break points on the day, and would convert just one, on a Federer double fault.
Like father, like son? Federer has been known to squander a break chance or two over the years, but he was the opportunistic one today—he was two for two on break points in the first set. On the first one, with Dimitrov serving at 3-3, Federer came up with his first moment of genius, a dipping backhand pass that led to an easy forehand winner on the next ball. From there, Federer briefly soared to vintage heights, cracking forehand winners, moving well, holding at love, and breaking Dimitrov for the set. When Federer held to start the second with a knifing forehand volley, it looked like he might leave Dimitrov—who hadn't helped his own cause in the first set by making just 39 percent of his first serves—in the rearview mirror, and leave the rest of us waiting for their next meeting.
But while they’re far apart in stature, these two players aren’t that far apart in their levels of play at the moment—Dimitrov has been climbing as Federer has been falling. And both would show it in the second set. At 1-1, Federer finally handed Dimitrov a break by hitting a second serve a foot over the service line. Suddenly, Federer, shaking his head and muttering to himself, looked lost, while Dimitrov had located his missing first serve and settled into the rallies. Dimitrov hit an ace to hold for 3-1, and, after saving a break point, did the same to hold for 5-3. At that stage, he appeared ready to reach Full Flight (Baby) Federer. In the next game, Dimitrov hit a brilliant slice backhand return for 0-30 and followed it with an even better forehand return to reach 0-40, triple set point.
But now it was time for nerves, and momentum, to swing the other way. Dimitrov, with a third set in his sights, got anxious, and Federer again played his best with his back to the wall. Federer came back to hold for 4-5; Dimitrov, serving for the set, double faulted, hit a smash 10 feet long, and was broken. From there through the tiebreaker, Federer was the calmer player. He was also something like his younger self. He mixed attack (a successful foray to net at 3-1 in the breaker) with defense (a perfectly placed stab return on the next point) and closed it with a couple of clutch serves.
In the end, Federer beat Dimitrov the same way he has beaten hundreds of other players in the past. Father has passed on his style and technique to this son; today he showed him how to close out a high-pressure match as well. Hopefully, Dimitrov, who will likely walk away kicking himself over blown chances, will learn from it; at least he knows he had chances. As for Federer, he can claim one of the best wins of his season, considering the circumstances. But youth has not been vanquished in Basel just yet. Federer moves on to a semifinal meeting tomorrow with another young player on the rise, 23-year-old Vasek Pospisil. We'll see if papa can preach again.