There are certain ways we expect tennis players to win matches. They can serve big. They can use their forehands to control the rallies. They can turn themselves into human backboards. They can pressure their opponents and, every once in a while, attack the net. But not many do it the way Grigor Dimitrov did it in his 85-minute, 6-3, 7-5 win over Nick Kyrgios in the final of the Western and Southern Open on Sunday.
Yes, Dimitrov served well, and he controlled his share of rallies, and he even made his way to the net when he had the chance. But he won this match with his defense. He won it with his slice backhand, which skimmed the net tape and made the 6’5” Kyrgios uncomfortable—the Australian, who had been so sharp in beating Rafael Nadal two nights earlier, finished with 31 errors against 21 winners. More than anything, though, Dimitrov won this match with his running forehand from five feet behind the baseline.
Kyrgios likes to make inroads on his opponents by hooking his forehand crosscourt. But Dimitrov, like Pete Sampras and Andy Murray and not all that many others, loves nothing more than tracking down a ball deep in that corner and either chopping a neutralizing ball back, hooking a passing shot crosscourt, or, best of all, slapping a screaming winner down the line. Dimitrov’s two most memorable and important shots of this match were the latter. He sent a corner-to-corner screamer for a winner to go up 0-30 on Kyrgios’s serve in the first set, and broke serve from there. And he hit an even more spectacular slap winner up the line in the final game.
Those shots were flashy enough to remind anyone who may have forgotten that Dimitrov was once known as Baby Fed. Still, he won his first Masters 1000 title in very adult fashion. Dimitrov was nothing more or less than solid and steady throughout. He didn’t drop a set in five matches, and won 52 of 53 service games. While seven of the Top 10 men weren’t in Cincy, he still found his way through against three hard-hitting, high-quality opponents: Juan Martin del Potro, whom he had never beaten before; John Isner, in a 12-10 second-set tiebreaker that featured some scintillating rallies; and Kyrgios.
What about Kyrgios? It was an up week, on and off court, for the up-and-down Aussie. He was healthy; he competed fully; he beat David Goffin, Nadal, and David Ferrer; he reached his first Masters 1000 final; and he injected his name back into the US Open conversation. Along the way, Kyrgios showed that he can do the SABR every bit as brilliantly as its inventor, Roger Federer.
Kyrgios also reminded many of us why we liked him. He charmed Cincinnati by practicing with one fan and high-fiving a few others during a match, and he cracked up Tennis Channel’s Leif Shiras when he told him that, all things considered, he’d rather be inside “having a cold one” than playing in the 100-degree heat.
The only down moment for Kyrgios came at the very end of the final. After competing well through the second set and reaching 5-5, Kyrgios suddenly double-faulted three times and sent a flat-footed forehand over the baseline for the decisive break. As Kyrgios said afterward, there’s more work to be done, but at least he seems to feel like the work is worth doing again.
For Dimitrov, the work finally paid off. At 26, he becomes the second of his age cohort, after Marin Cilic, to win a Masters 1000. That won’t make him the favorite in New York, but it should let him know that he can still fulfill his early potential, especially without the Big 4—three of whom were absent in Cincy—in his way. At 26, back in the Top 10, with a 34-14 record on the year, Dimitrov isn’t Fed, but he’s hardly a baby anymore, either.