Tennis Channel Live at the US Open—breaking down the bottom half of the men's draw:
NEW YORK—On a sweltering day at Flushing Meadows, the only thing that remained cool was Grigor Dimitrov’s season.
The nominal No. 8 seed, now 22-16 in 2018, completed a disappointing year at the majors with a 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 loss to Stan Wawrinka, the three-time Grand Slam champion Dimitrov has been unlucky to draw as his first-round opponent at two consecutive Slams.
In both matches, it was Wawrinka who looked like the Top 10 player—at Wimbledon, he won in four sets—with Dimitrov’s excellent 2017 season a distant memory.
This year’s two major meetings between Dimitrov and Wawrinka have revealed plenty about both men. For Wawrinka, they are evidence that he is quickly rediscovering his imposing form, after missing the second half of 2017 with injury. His powerful groundstrokes were devastating today; they made service games a breeze and helped him amass a 6-3, 3-0 lead before most of Arthur Ashe Stadium’s lower bowl was occupied.
They’ve also reminded us, if our memories were clouded by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—who have won every Grand Slam title since Wawrinka’s 2016 US Open triumph—of the unique force that is the stout Swiss. One of the only players who has been able to crack the Big Three code, Wawrinka is tennis' ultimate momentum player. He gave Nadal and Federer difficult tests in the later rounds of Montreal and Cincinnati, respectively, and at this point should be considered a serious threat at the US Open, where he hasn’t lost a match since 2015.
“So far, everything’s good,” Wawrinka told ESPN’s Jason Goodall after the match, which included a medical timeout. “Some struggle with my body, I don’t know why. Tough conditions.”
The physical struggle allowed Dimitrov to mount his one and only offensive on the day in the third set, which he led 5-3. But the Bulgarian promptly dropped the next four games, much of the damage self-inflicted. After losing serve at 5-5, he put his racquet out of its misery a few minutes before his own demise.
When Wawrinka slammed an ace—his sixth of the match, and his 30th winner—to advance to the second round, he raised his arms and yelled like he’d successfully defended his title.
“Right now, there’s a lot of emotion,” said Wawrinka. “It’s great to win again on this court.”
For Dimitrov, if nothing else, these matches have illustrated the gap between the two men, and what he needs to improve upon most. Juxtaposed with Wawrinka’s heavy strikes, Dimitrov was simply overpowered—adding some more muscle to his lovely shots would make a big difference. The placement was there; the power was not. He only needed to look across the net for another one-hander to emulate.
There’s nothing wrong technically with Dimitrov’s forehand or backhand, of course. The former, a quick swipe with nice depth, might even be underrated on tour. But without consistent, put-away power, Dimitrov is forced to hit these exquisite shots time and again, and eventually, errors surface. Over the course of two hours and 24 minutes, Dimitrov made 42 unforced errors, roughly split between both groundstrokes.
Then there’s Dimitrov’s serve. Again, it’s a shot that occasionally looks brilliant, but is regularly targeted by opponents. There’s a lot going on with his service motion, which might be more convoluted than his backhand. While he’s capable of hitting big numbers on the radar gun, Dimitrov’s second serve can be exposed if his first isn’t connecting. Against Wawrinka, he won just 42 percent of second deliveries.
Old habits die hard, but I wonder how much more effective Dimitrov’s serve would be if he could develop a shorter backswing, like Wawrinka’s.
Wawrinka is an unlikely hero to tennis fans. In an era of transcendent stars, this late-bloomer—whose style, according to colleague Joel Drucker, “is belligerently anti-Federer,” and whose clothing “suggests a ‘70s odd album or book cover”—always manages to win over the crowd, wherever he plays.
Perhaps Wawrinka's career arc can provide some inspiration for Dimitrov, who on this day looked more like Federer than ever, wearing a striking Nike polo reminiscent of his pre-Uniqlo days. There’s still time for Dimitrov to break through at a major, and his talent isn’t going anywhere. And it was only last year in which Dimitrov reached his second Grand Slam semifinal, won his first ATP Masters 1000 title and ended the season by winning the ATP Finals. He gave us a taste of the player tennis fans would love to get behind.
For Dimitrov’s sake, he’d better hope that both he and Wawrinka are seeded at the 2019 Australian Open—it would ensure they couldn’t meet at such an early juncture. Beyond that, the one-time Baby Fed could do a lot worse than striving to become the next Baby Stan.
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