First Ball In, 8/31: Noble Efforts

Sunday, August 31, 2014 /by

“I can’t remember the last time someone beat me in a set 6-0.”

NEW YORK—Grigor Dimitrov probably can’t remember the last time he played as poorly as he did in his first six games against David Goffin in the Grandstand on Sunday night. Dimitrov made 32 percent of his first serves, struggled to find the court with his ground strokes, and had trouble keeping his hand on his grip in the humid air. Goffin, stronger and thicker than the last time I saw him, had spent his summer tearing up the Challenger circuit in Europe. Had he built enough confidence to keep that form going at the U.S. Open?

Not tonight, not against this opponent. Dimitrov slowly found his range and began to shift the court positioning in his favor. By the third set and especially in the fourth, it was clear that, as much as Goffin had improved, and as early as he was taking the ball, Dimitrov still had many more ways to win. That’s always been true of the former junior No. 1, but he wasn’t always able to pinpoint the right way to win a tough match like this, wasn’t always able to keep believing the turnaround would come.

“I think maybe a year and a half or two years ago, I think I would have struggled a lot with a match like that," he said. "Now I feel, even if I lose a set, it’s not the end of the world. I know I can turn things around pretty quick. I have the weapons.”

Dimitrov has always had those flashy weapons; getting better for him was a matter of doing the dirty work, winning despite adversity, winning without his best, winning without the flash. Two years ago, I watched him play, and lose, a similar four-set match here to Benoit Paire. His coach that day lamented that he hung his head and didn’t fight when things weren’t coming easily for him.

“We definitely established a good base,” Dimitrov said of his work this year with a new coach, Roger Rasheed. "We put a lot of pieces together, checked off a lot of boxes.”

As far as explanations go, that’s not the most original. But the proof is in the scoreline, a calm and methodical 0-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 win, a win in which Dimitrov got better as he went.

*****

“I’m cool. As usual.”

If something’s wrong with Gael Monfils, he’s not letting on. But doesn’t it seem a little strange that the flamboyant Frenchman has won all nine sets he's played so far? Wasn’t it a little odd how easily he dismantled his countryman Richard Gasquet on Sunday night? La Monf had just what he wanted: A full crowd on Armstrong in the palm of his hand. But after flirting with a meltdown over a few raindrops early, he played it straight the rest of the way. Cool, as he would say. 

“I think I’m the same,” the mystery man said. “You don’t understand why, but I understand why. Still the same. Hanging around. No coach. I’m happy.”

All, perhaps, will be revealed in the coming week. If I’m reading him right, I would expect something bizarre very soon. In the meantime, Gael being Gael, he says he’ll request to play on Armstrong rather than the prestige court, Ashe, in his next match, against Grigor Dimitrov. And he believes that his protégé in athletic mayhem, Nick Kyrgios, will crack the “Top 13” this year. Or at least that’s what I thought I heard him say. The transcript to his press conference says “Top 30”; but doesn’t Top 13 just sound so much more Monfils?

*****

“Just mega proud right now.”

That word, “mega,” might be popping up in the tennis world a lot more in the near future. Belinda Bencic described Arthur Ashe Stadium as "mega cool" tonight, and it seems to be Dominic Thiem’s way of saying, "I'm stoked." 

Thiem sent out the above message on Twitter after his straight-set third-round win over Feliciano Lopez. The Austrian elaborated on the sentiment, as 20-year-olds will, on Facebook, where he also expanded on his unique verbal stylings. The kid seems to have a language all his own.

“First second week of a Slam in my first year on tour,” Thiem wrote. “Just noble. I had answers to everything in his game today. I was surprised how good I could handle his slice. Hit some really good passing shots. And returned mega. At the moment, I’m just mega proud...Thank you all for your support, I appreciate that very very much. Bamos!”

Bamos? Anyway, Thiem, who has now lodged wins over Ernests Gulbis and Lopez here, seems destined for the Top 10. His forehand is that ideal mix of power and spin that allows him to swing out as hard as he wants yet still play a high-percentage shot. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both have forehands like that, and it's what has always elevated them above the rest. Is Thiem ready for his next opponent, Tomas Berdych? Probably not just yet. But even if the result isn’t mega, the effort will surely be noble.

*****

OOP Analysis

See Monday’s Order of Play here.

Serena Williams vs. Kaia Kanepi

Serena hasn’t lost a set to Kanepi in their three meetings, and she looks even more determined than usual here, now that the denuded WTA draw has left her alone at the top. But Kanepi is a slugger, they haven’t played in five years, and Serena is still due for her mid-round Grand Slam scare. Winner: Williams

Novak Djokovic vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber

Could this be tougher than it sounds on paper? Yes, Djokovic is 4-1 against Kohlschreiber. Yes, he usually mows down the field in the middle rounds at majors. And yes, his win over Sam Querrey had a touch of the ominous about it. But the German has taken a set in each of their last three matches, and this one will be on Armstrong. We know what happened to another high seed in the fourth round there last year. Winner: Djokovic

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Andy Murray

This is the day’s potential blockbuster. Tsonga won their last match, in Toronto, in three sets, a few weeks ago. But Murray had won the previous seven, and has played better in the two tournaments since. Is the fourth member of the Big Four ready to prove he still belongs in the club? He’s due. Winner: Murray

Eugenie Bouchard vs. Ekaterina Makarova

Now it gets serious for the golden girl. She moves from Ashe to Armstrong and from night to day, and she faces a high-quality opponent in the 18th-ranked Makarova. Bouchard will have to play better than she has so far to beat the Russian, who won their only meeting last year, in straight sets, in D.C. Winner: Makarova

Stan Wawrinka vs. Tommy Robredo

The Armstrong day session will close with these two old pros duking it out, one-handed backhand to one-handed backhand. TRob, who is 32 but seems ageless, leads Wawa, who is 29 but just coming into his own, 6-2 in their head to head. Stan won their last one, at the Australian Open, in three close sets. Think long. Winner: Robredo

Victoria Azarenka vs. Aleksandra Krunic

One benefit of CBS’ daytime takeover on Labor Day weekend has been that youth has had a chance to take a star turn at night—Bencic, Kyrgios, Dimitrov, Bouchard, Raonic, and now the 21-year-old Krunic of Serbia have played in the evening. The jocky little conqueror of Kvitova says she’s just learning her “limits.” Do they include a win over the two-time runner-up? Azarenka appears to be rounding into form in time for another deep run here. Winner: Azarenka

Milos Raonic vs. Kei Nishikori

The Knish leads the Missile in their head to head 2-1, but Raonic won their last one, at Wimbledon. Nishikori is coming back from a toe issue, but if he can put a few returns in play at the right time, he stands a good chance in this late-night special. Wimbledon: Nishikori

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