MELBOURNE—Just before his match with Rafael Nadal began today, Grigor Dimitrov took a last-second trip to bathroom, thus making the world No. 1 wait to walk down the tunnel into Rod Laver Arena. A minute or so later, Dimitrov made Rafa wait again, this time at the net before the coin toss. Anyone who knows anything about tennis, of course, knows that these are two of Nadal’s classic rituals—or ploys, depending on your point of view. Dimitrov was trying to flip the head-game script, but he didn’t really have his heart in it. After the two players stood together at the net for a pre-match photo, Dimitrov happily exchanged a smile and a “good luck” with Rafa before each of them ran back to the baseline to start the warm-up. The Artist Formerly Known as Baby Fed is a nice guy at heart. And he wasn’t quite ready to knock his friend Nadal out of a Grand Slam when he had the chance.
For the second straight round, Nadal was better as a competitor than he was as a player, and for the second straight round the result was a razor-thin, two-tiebreaker, three-plus-hour win, this time by the score of 3-6, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (7), 6-2. Nadal got off to a slow start, was on the run much of the time, lost the feel on his serve and his forehand, gave back leads that would normally have been slammed home, and only escaped a two-sets-to-one deficit because Dimitrov missed the easiest of putaway forehand by inches. In other words, it was your run-of-the-mill, off-day, Houdini-esque win for Nadal.
In truth, there wasn’t much he could have done in the first set. Dimitrov, who said he walked out expecting to win, was on fire to start. He opened the match with an ace, and hit another to hold for 1-0—Dimitrov would finish with 16 aces, and like Stan Wawrinka against Novak Djokovic last night, his serve was a major factor in what success he had. In the second game, Dimitrov broke by coming up with a nice short-hop volley, and then watching Nadal shank a forehand at break point. In the third game, Dimitrov hit two aces and a service winner to hold for 3-0. A small but decidedly vocal pack of Bulgarians rose and chanted his name. We had a match.
Dimitrov held out for 6-3, but a dip in play was inevitable—how many times in the past has we seen Djokovic fire his way through a first set against Nadal, only to be dragged back down to the earth over the next two? The dip for Dimitrov came when, in the second game of the second set, he missed a forehand up the line by a few inches. Until then, all of his risky plays had been rewarded with winners, but here was the first chink in the armor. Nadal, seeming to sense his chance, stepped forward and broke serve with an inside-out forehand winner to go up 2-0. Order appeared to have been restored, and the crowd settled in to watch Nadal put the kid through the proverbial shredder for the next three hours or so.
Except that Nadal didn’t shred anything, except perhaps for a little more skin on his blistered left hand. He double-faulted three times in his next service game and was broken. Afterward, Rafa said the blisters, and the tape needed to cover them, affected his serve (but nothing else in his game). Whatever the problem was, the next two sets were hard-fought, intense, and in doubt until the final point.
When Nadal held for 2-2 in the second set, he pumped his fist and looked to the crowd for energy in a way I don’t think I’d ever seen from him. It seemed that the Bulgarians, who were bellowing in Rafa’s direction all afternoon, had riled him up. With Dimitrov firing line-drives and Nadal countering with heavy topspin, the two took the set into a tiebreaker. It was there that Dimitrov faltered, putting three easy balls into the net to go down 4-1. When Nadal closed the set with a running flick cross-court backhand pass, and punctuated it with knee bend-fist pump celebration, it looked like now, at last, things were back to normal.
That feeling continued into the middle of the third set, when Nadal was up a break and serving at 4-3. But again his serve betrayed him; he double-faulted and was broken for 4-4. In the ensuing tiebreaker, Nadal gave away another lead when his typically trusty down-the-line forehand began to misfire. Suddenly, after looking dead in the water for most of the set, Dimitrov stood one point from winning it. That may have been a little too sudden for the 22-year-old: With a fat sitter forehand right in his strike zone, Dimitrov stopped moving his feet long enough to pull it wide. Down set point a few minutes later, he did the same thing. Afterward, Dimitrov could barely speak when asked to talk about those two misses. He won’t forget them anytime soon, but perhaps they’ll be his version of Wawrinka’s “Fail Better” motto, a necessary part of the learning process that every talented young player must suffer through.
Despite the loss and the tears, this tournament was a big step forward for Dimitrov—he's begun to make a name, rather than a nickname, for himself. He reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, and stood toe to toe with the No. 1 player in the world for four sets. As for Rafa, when he was asked how he had survived the third-set tiebreaker, he said flatly, "I was so lucky." Nonetheless, he moves on to the semifinals. But there's a question hanging over his game: We know he can win without his best; but can he win without his serve?