Nostalgics who dread the inevitable departure from the game of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal rejoiced when two heirs presumptive, Grigor Dimitrov and Dominic Thiem, lit up the royal blue arena on the second day of the ATP World Tour Finals with classicism from a bygone era.
Like Federer, both employ sublime, single-handed backhands, but it was Dimitrov’s that whirred most like a scimitar under the lights, bringing him nine clean winners in two hours and 19 minutes on his way to subduing the Austrian, 6-3, 5-7, 7-5.
The first Bulgarian to make the finals, Dimitrov said courtside: “I’m not going to lie, I was pretty nervous. Great conditions, but you come in and you feel the weight on your shoulders. It’s never easy to play for the first time. Entering this tournament was a dream, not just to compete, but to win. Things seem to be going the right way so far. You fail and you get back up again. There were a few close calls. On to the next one.”
Dimitrov has had his most consistent season since he was first touted as the contender most likely to break the Federer and Nadal monopoly – as well as the absent Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic – but he had to overcome double-faulting three times on his way to taking the first set. Thiem made him fight for everything thereafter.
The Austrian found a Federesque inside-out forehand to steady his rocking ship in the 11th game of the second set, before surrendering a crucial break point with a misdirected backhand from behind the baseline. He saved down the line with another unreachable forehand that looked more like the work of the king of top-spin, Nadal, and he held with a big serve down the middle.
Thiem broke to love to level at a set apiece, as his opponent’s forehand hit the tramlines – but neither player abandoned their adventurous style.
Dimitrov ended a high-grade exchange in the fourth game of the third set with a perfect lob, as each of them strove for the break. Thiem saved two break points, struck a seventh ace for game point and held to keep the match alive.
The tension did little to undermine their commitment to flair, and Dimitrov broke for 4-3 with a backhand volley picked up from his shoelaces that drifted over the net like a feather, with Thiem stranded 10 yards away.
Thiem, on the brink of defeat, made the most of a clipped net cord for break point – and Dimitrov struck an off-balance backhand wide. Serving for the match a second time, Dimitrov double-faulted on the first of two match points, missed a forehand for deuce and was relieved and elated when Thiem hit a 15th unforced error on his backhand.
Earlier, Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares regretted missed opportunities against the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike, who survived two concerted fightbacks to win 7-5, 6-7 (3), 10-8.
“We had it on our racket,” Murray conceded later, referring to a first set in which he and his Brazilian partner might have wrapped up a winning lead, “Then we let it slip. We fought hard. In the second set, we were a break down and came back. But we didn’t get a great start in the tie-break. We got to 8-9 but were just a little short.”
Murray said the match mirrored their season. “We lost quite a lot of matches like that this year. We just need to find a way to do better in those [important] moments, to close things out when we have the chance.”
As the debate about the fitness of his brother, Andy, rumbles on – Roger Federer saying that the former world No1 looked pretty good in their exhibition match in Glasgow last Tuesday, and Tim Henman and Andrew Castle suggesting he might struggle to get back to his best after a hip injury that put a four-month hole in his season – sibling loyalty kicked in.
Jamie, who played doubles with Andy in front of their Scottish fans, said: “I think he did fine. [The Federer match] was a pretty good test for him. He was probably pretty happy. He seemed to be moving pretty well. His goal is just to get ready for next year and be fit and healthy for Australia.”