(7) Dimitrov d. (1) Ferrer, 2/6 6/3 6/4
It is consistent with the ATP’s belated commitment to greater coherence that the European Indoor season, which began this week in Moscow, Vienna and Stockholm, now wastes so little time getting to the point. It was a move long overdue. If the season as a whole makes little sense, muddled as it is by the timing of the Majors, at least the little mini-seasons that comprise it can achieve some internal logic. Now the European indoors is structured just like the Asian swing, as a three-week escalation from 250 level events, through a pair of 500s, and culminating in a Masters 1000. The clay season and the US Summer trace similar arcs, and presumably the grass season would as well if it only had more time.
Nevertheless, I confess I miss the more amorphous proportions the indoor season used to have. Whereas now it is crisply marketed and boasts a discernible shape, it was once baffling and went on seemingly for ever, filling the back-end of the season with an indeterminate number of ghoulishly-lit, interchangeable events differentiated only by their trophies, which strove to surpass each other for nightmarish modernism. It was kind of wonderful. You could tune it at any point and know what you were getting, yet rest assured that none of it mattered very much.
Along with Basel’s dusted pink – now a confected memory – the hyperborean gloom of Stockholm was the season’s highlight, if that’s the word. It was thus with some disappointment that I tuned in earlier this week, and discovered that the Swedish tournament’s overall look has been sharpened. Since before I can remember it has been so unrelievedly blue that it left viewers in no doubt that the spectacle before them was taking place somewhere very northern and very cold. The way the image seemed to darken and grow fuzzy at the edges helpfully evoked the sensation of freezing to death. Perhaps it was merely an issue with the coverage, not helped by the time difference that ensured I was always watching in the small hours of the following morning. Sadly, although the court is still blue, the colour has deepened, and the space around it has been recoloured green, thus helping it look exactly like a lot of other tennis courts. Thankfully Stockholm’s other trimmings have remained untrimmed, including the net contraptions used by the ballkids – why are these not used everywhere? – and a trophy that looks like one of Dr No’s discarded doomsday devices.
This device – I am assured its depleted palladium core has been removed – is now in the possession of Grigor Dimitrov, his reward for becoming the first Bulgarian supervillain ever to win a tour title. His victory also completed rare day of triumph for one-handed backhands and vindication for the select group of men who’ve rightly or wrongly been dogged by comparisons with Roger Federer. Dimitrov is merely the latest to be burdened by the title ‘Baby Fed’. The original Baby Fed, you will recall, was Richard Gasquet, who an hour earlier recovered to defeat Mikhail Kukushkin in the Moscow final. Tommy Haas was spared the dubious Baby Fed accolade through being older than Federer. Instead, for large parts of last decade he was held up as an example of stylish potential untapped, of what Federer might have been had it not all worked out so well. The irony, if we can even call it that, is that Haas this year has won twice as many titles as Federer: two. Maybe it isn’t irony, but it is somewhat miraculous, given Haas’ age. During the trophy presentation Robin Haase remarked that he himself might have been the thirty-five year old, while the German could pass for twenty-five. ‘If you only knew,’ replied Haas.
Both Gasquet and Haas recovered from a break down in the final set against sporadically inspired opponents, eventually claiming their titles within about ten minutes of each other. Initially it appeared unlikely that Dimitrov would reprise this pattern. He and David Ferrer commenced the Stockholm final in the traditional manner of fast indoor tennis, by breaking each other constantly. Dimitrov soon wearied of this, though Ferrer didn’t, and soon won the first set. Mostly this was achieved through the universally-applied tactic of directing everything at the Bulgarian’s backhand, though it would be unfair to suggest that it ever truly broke down. Indeed it held up admirably through the tighter second set. Ferrer had by now tired of breaking as well, instead developing a fondness for unforced errors. He lost his serve late, and then the set.
The stage was thus set for Dimitrov to fall down an early break in the deciding set, and then storm heroically back. Sadly, for Ferrer and for those of us pointlessly hoping that all three finals would play out almost identically, Dimitrov was never quite broken, though it was a near-run thing. Instead, again, it was the top seed Ferrer who found the crucial error at the worst moment, and double-faulted to give away the break. Dimitrov served it out, and commenced his celebration routine. Thankfully this has evolved from earlier in the year, when he would roar ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ with arrhythmic gusto, uncannily echoing Gru in Despicable Me.
He began his year by reaching his first tour final in Brisbane, then characteristically lost his way. I was sitting with his old coach and manager as he fell dismally to Julien Benneteau in the first round of the Australian Open – a meticulously rendered example of a backhand crumbling apart – and could hardly have imagined that of the two men Dimitrov would be the first to win a maiden title. One of course should not underestimate Benneteau’s capabilities in this area, especially after Kuala Lumpur. The real risk is that after Stockholm we’ll overestimate Dimitrov. He has always attracted heightened expectations, especially in an era in which the next big things have proven slow to appear.
Presumably his new coach will help with that. Stockholm was Dimitrov’s first tournament with the ineffable Roger Rasheed, ‘ineffable’ in this case denoting that species of incomprehensibility that contrives to sound meaningful. Rasheed’s gift for impenetrable neologism is of course legendary, and certainly hasn’t gone unexamined in these pages. In the case of Dimitrov, however, I can see its legitimate value: by having to focus so hard on deciphering what Rasheed is saying he ensures that his mind remains empty of whatever it is usually filled with. Rasheed thus stands revealed as a kind of Zen master, with corporate-calibre motivational aphorisms taking the place of ‘Om’.
Beyond his capacity to spout claptrap, though, Rasheed is nothing if not a taskmaster, and notoriously intolerant of any player giving less than his best. His true value will be in addressing those periods, altogether too common, when Dimitrov decides not to bother. Everyone looks good when he’s playing well, and Dimitrov looks better than most. It’s what happens when you’re playing badly that counts. Yesterday in the semifinal he came back from a set down, though admittedly that was against Benoit Paire. But today he recovered from a poor start against Ferrer, and held his nerve admirably through a tight final set. Afterwards Dimitrov insisted that he was happier with his perseverance and resilience than with the actual silverware. I can’t say how true that is – it sounds like the kind of sentiment Rasheed would endorse, although he’d certainly use different words – but I suspect it is at least partially the case. In any case, one can hope.