BMW Open Munich, Quarterfinals
Mayer d. Dimitrov, 7/6 3/6 6/4
Stepanek d. Kohlschreiber, 6/4 6/0
If Marcos Baghdatis’ effort a few days ago was the kind that loses fans, then Grigor Dimitrov’s today was the kind that wins them. Behind for much of the third set, the Bulgarian went down swinging. The temptation must have been strong to going down throwing haymakers, but he demonstrated maturity in maintaining the deft jabs, stern uppercuts and solid blows to the ribs that had kept Florian Mayer on his heels for the first two sets. Defeat is a tough thing to swallow, but maintaining your composure whilst it happens will conceivably lead to victories later on, when things break your way. For a young guy on the make, keeping your head is paramount. The chances will come.
As it stands, Dimitrov’s game is sufficiently attractive that a respectable fan-base is only a big upset away. When in full flight, he resembles Roger Federer in full flight, which is not a coincidence. The technical debt is plain, and has been amply remarked upon. There will always those eager to swear eternal fealty to a beautiful game played beautifully, and it’s a hard bias to begrudge. But a gorgeous groundstroke repertoire will only get you so far, as Philip Kohlschreiber later demonstrated in going down four and zilch to Radek Stepanek. His shots weren’t landing in, but the authority with which they were struck was hard to dispute, and the backhand remained a delight even if it couldn’t find the court. He is a lovely player who can’t or won’t win ugly, and the cult-like dimensions of his fan-base reflect it. They understand that their man isn’t going to win a major, but the sporadic and commanding upsets over the Andy Roddicks or Novak Djokovics make it all worthwhile, since they’re so uncompromising in their virtuosity. That’s fine for Kohlschreiber, but it’s fair to say Dimitrov’s ambitions are higher. The way he lost today suggests they might be just be realistic.
Following the 2009 Wimbledon final, Roddick was at pains to remind everyone that Federer rarely receives adequate credit for toughing it out, and winning ugly when he needs to. It’s not the standard word on the Swiss, despite being the correct one. Even in the years of his dominance he scored most of his victories that way. (It is not unlike the irrepressible cliché that Rafael Nadal wins his matches deep in the final set tiebreaker through sheer will and brawn – the myth of the unstoppable warrior. But Nadal usually wins in straight sets.) By modelling his game so closely on Federer’s, Dimitrov has inevitably tapped into the discourse of the genius at work, no matter that the discourse is misleading. Anyone truly modelling their game on Federer would do better to emulate his generally glossed-over fighting qualities. If you simply attempt to mimic, say, the 2006 Masters Cup final, you don’t end up with Federer, you end up with Kohlschreiber. Even Federer at his peak rarely played like that for long, so it’s a stretch to think his disciples can.
But enough of this: on to the match, which was excellent. Mayer’s notoriety for having yet to claim a maiden title is second only to Janko Tipsarevic’s, and by moving through to his third semifinal of the season, he has once again put himself in a position to rectify that. In contrast to his opponent, his is not an attractive game. It is an intriguing one, although the resemblance to Fabrice Santoro’s is mostly over-stated, and mostly limited to a tendency towards playfulness when you don’t expect it. He didn’t look especially playful today, especially not as the third set wore on, and a determined Dimitrov looked set to erase the German’s lead. As a Dimitrov forehand pass flashed by and in, Mayer half-turned, hefted his racquet as though faking to smash it, and then actually smashed it, repeatedly and with precise and frightening efficiency. It was the first time I’ve ever seen Mayer erupt, and it recalled Fernando Gonzalez not only in its thoroughness, but in the immediate catharsis it brought. He went on to hold a tight game, and then to close out a tight match.