MELBOURNE—If this is the future of men’s tennis, we don’t have too much worry about. On Saturday afternoon, Grigor Dimitrov, 22, and Milos Raonic, 23, each of whom has been touted as the game’s next great player, squared off in a much-anticipated third-rounder in Margaret Court Arena. The temperature in Melbourne had dropped 35 degrees overnight, to a comfortable 73 Fahrenheit, and the energy that had been pent-up around the grounds was let loose during this match. Dimitrov, a Bulgarian, and Raonic, a Montenegran-turned-Canadian, were backed by vocal rooting sections. It was difficult at times to tell who was for whom: At top volume, “Mee-losh!” can sound a lot like Dimitrov’s (other) nickname, “G-Force!”
This was one match where reality called hype and raised it a few bucks. Dimitrov and Raonic played four sets of aggressive, no-nonsense, high-quality tennis. Even better was their stylistic contrast. To put the match in terms of a famous analogy from philosophy, Dimitrov was the tennis equivalent of the fox, the player who does a lot of things well. Slice, topspin, ground strokes, volleys, drop shots: He threw it all at his opponent today. Raonic, by contrast, is the equivalent of the hedgehog, the player who does one thing extremely well—in his case, serve. Raonic did that well enough to survive Dimitrov’s varied onslaught and almost reach a fifth set. But while his 21 aces were a lot, they weren’t enough to keep Dimitrov from earning a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (10) win.
Dimitrov started fast, but Raonic turned the momentum around with a service break in the middle of the second set. From there, the match hinged on two key moments, one at the end of the third set, one at the end of the fourth.
Serving at 4-5 in the third, Raonic threw in his worst service game of the match and was broken at love. He double-faulted to start it, missed a forehand into the net on the second point, was passed on the third, and sprayed another forehand 10 feet wide on set point. After holding serve with ease for most of the afternoon—Raonic faced just four break points all day—he was suddenly down two sets to one.
In the fourth set, Raonic faced the same situation: He had to serve at 4-5, this time to stay in the match. When Dimitrov hit two flick passing shot winners from behind the baseline—one a forehand, one a backhand—to reach 15-30, it looked like recent history was going to repeat itself. But Raonic responded this time, and held with a high forehand volley.
In the ensuing tiebreaker, Dimitrov again knocked on the door, and again Raonic responded. Down 4-6, he would save four match points, three of the them with service winners. But when Raonic earned two set points of his own, he couldn’t deliver—he missed a forehand approach, and an easy forehand return off a second serve. Finally, down 10-11, facing a fifth match point, Raonic drilled a forehand into the net.
Dimitrov was at his high-flying best; he hit a jaw-dropping 49 winners against just 13 errors—proof again of how valuable Raonic’s serve is; only that shot could have keep someone alive for so long against a zoning Dimitrov. Yet as well as he did to stay afloat, Raonic also suffered by comparison with his opponent. The Canadian looked inflexible when seen on the same court as the darting, versatile Baby Fed.
Or should that be Pseudo Baby Fed? Asked afterward about his best shot of the match, a running backhand pass, Dimitrov told the crowd, “That wasn’t as easy as it looked like, guys. Just so you know.”
We know, Grigor. And your next match, against a red-hot Roberto Bautista Agut, may not be as easy as it looks, either.