London | Dimitrov finally claims a major title
Grigor Dimitrov cried as he came of age to seal the singles title at the ATP Finals, declaring: “It just came out. It is a special event.”
Dimitrov has been touted as the next big thing for some time; saddled with the moniker Baby Fed, given because his style reminded people of a younger Roger Federer.
But he grew up at a rock ‘n’ rolling 02 on the banks of the River Thames in London on Sunday night.
The first debut winner of the title since Alex Corretja in 1998 showed class, determination, nerve and sheer guts to defeat David Goffin 7-5 4-6 6-3 in an epic, dramatic and gut-wrenching final full of twists and turns over 2hr.30min.
I'm still trying to think about what I just did. I think now definitely we going to sit down with the team and reassess the whole year, see what we've done good, what we can improve. This is an unbelievable achievement but I still have a lot to give. I want to perform better Grigor Dimitrov
He collapsed face down after Goffin put a backhand volley into the net on his fifth match point and regained his feet wiping away the wet stuff around his peepers.
Dimitrov hugged his family and team, including his coach Dani Vallverdu, who once worked with the injured 2016 title winner Andy Murray.
He thanked everybody he could think of in his post-match interview courtside, including girlfriend, pop singer Nicole Scherzinger.
And he collected the silver trophy from three-time champion Boris Becker after shaking hands with Chris Kermode, the ATP chairman and president who, as tournament director at Queen’s, gave him a helping hand when he was little known with a wild card in 2009.
The tickertape cascaded down and around him. David Bowe’s Heroes boomed around the bowl out of the sound system that had supplied the rock, roll and soul all week at a tournament which dubbed itself ‘Tennis Amplified’.
It was a triumph which earned him £1.9m, a world No.3 ranking and, above all, respect and true recognition for his talent.
He seemed on the verge of reaching the top when defeating defending champion Murray at Wimbledon three years ago.
But he faded into the 40s on the ranking list with the public focus perhaps more on his relationship with fellow player Maria Sharapova.
Sixth seed Dimitrov, 26, the first from his country to lift the crown, revealed just why the victory was so special to him
He said: “It’s emotional. I felt I deserved to be here, but I didn’t want to imagine that far ahead that. I’m going to be on the final, win the whole thing. It was also just the end of the year, the last match. Knowing I don’t have to go to practice tomorrow will be great feeling when I wake up in the morning. I sacrificed days I should probably have had off and it has paid off.
“When I was like 43, 44, 45, I was thinking ‘how can I put it together, put three balls in the court?’ But with the right set of mind, the right people, the right support things can happen. Little by little, drop by drop, here I am.
“I’m still trying to think about what I just did. I think now definitely we going to sit down with the team and reassess the whole year, see what we’ve done good, what we can improve. This is an unbelievable achievement but I still have a lot to give. I want to perform better.”
Dimitrov felt the turning point was when he broke Goffin in the third set.
He said: “We were back and forth on that game. I knew I had to go at some point for something big because he was really going for his spots on the serve. He was serving really well. It was hard to read. Serving very close to the lines.
“At some point I felt I needed to pick up a side. I knew when that second serve came around, I knew if I had a clean hit on it, that would have been enough for me to get in the offense. I think that was kind of the key. Also the two points pretty much in the last game that I served pretty well. I was able to kind of, yeah, make them work.”
Goffin, another debutant as of right, more than played his part with his attacking style, quality serving and never-say-die spirit just a few days after only winning two games off the same opponent in a round-robin match
But a “whoooo” from the crowd – presumably from Dimitrov supporters trying to distract the Belgium as he threw the ball up – seemed to distract seventh-seeded Goffin during a service game in which his opponent got a vital break in the third set; the turning point.
Goffin said: “It was a tough game. I was tired. It was the only game maybe I didn’t serve well. I didn’t put a lot of first serves in the game. He took advantage because I served a lot of second serves. He was really solid. He started to put more balls in court. Since the end of the first set I served well.
“I think after this week I am a better player, mentally and also physically. It was tough but I proved to myself that I can do it.”
The Belgian appeared tense as he stood in the corridor waiting to be called to the court while Dimitrov appeared relaxed as he sauntered through the entrance and dry ice onto the blue-painted place of battle, chatting to his mascot while acknowledging the crowd.
But nerves clearly seeped through both performers as the final got underway in a roller-coaster first set. The opening three games went against the serve before Goffin held for 3-1 with the help of two successive aces.
Goffin was aggressive, just as he was in his shock semi-final victory over Roger Federer who was going for his record seventh title, and his movement sublime.
But sixth seed Dimitrov got to grips to break back for 4-4 as Goffin double-faulted before taking the lead for the first time and going on to take the lead on his fifth set point as he broke the Belgian again just before the hour.
Goffin worked his way back in the second set. He was able to win his opening two service games without dropping a point, electing in the main to serve to his opponent’s backhand. Yet he went break point down in his third before holding with the aid of bold returns. And he succeeded in breaking Dimitrov for a 4-3 lead with a thunderous 95mph return.
He held to force Dimitrov to serve to save the set, which he did from 15-30 down. But Goffin completed the job with an ace followed by a serve which Dimitrov netted.
Goffin went into the third boasting the best record in decisive sets on the ATP Tour this year, winning 22 of 27, BBC commentator Andrew Castle informed us.
And it looked as if he might take a giant step towards No.23 as he forced four break points in the opening game with Dimitrov appearing heavy legged, perhaps through edginess, but the Bulgarian gutsed it out to hold after 11 minutes.
Goffin, going toe-to-toe with his opponent, battled to hold on to his serve.
With David Beckham, sporting a green woolly hat and long blond locks, enjoying the action neither player gave an inch.
Dimitrov, keeping his head up after the disappointment of the previous set, went 3-2 up with a love service game to edge him in front 90-89 on total winners.
It clearly gave him a confidence boost at such a delicate point in the match and he took a second break point for a 4-2 lead.
And he held to force Goffin to serve to save the match and had three match points. But Goffin clawed his way back, again stepping up the pace, to hold.
It left Dimitrov to serve out – and he did as Goffin stretched and put that backhand volley into the net on the Bulgarian’s fifth match point.
Henri Kontinen and John Peers, the Finnish and Australian combination, retained their doubles crown by overcoming No.1 seeds Pole Lukasz Kubot and Brazilian Marcelo Melo, 6-4 6-2.
Peers, a former partner to Briton Jamie Murray, said: “How do I feel? To be honest, good. I thought every match we played here, we’ve played better and better as the week as gone on. It’s nice to come back and defend our title. It feels good to go on holidays after a win.”
Kontinen, who has partnered Brit Heather Watson to the Wimbledon mixed title, said: “Pretty amazing to win back-to-back. I don’t know if the toughest, but one of the toughest tournaments to win. Only top eight teams here. It was a tough field to get through. Luckily we play the round-robin format, so we got another shot after starting off very bad or slow. Hopefully we’ll play well here again next year, if we make it here.”