Monday morning, the first morning of what passes for tennis’s off-season, brought sad news: former Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna had died of cancer at the age of 49. She had passed away the day before, at her home in the Czech Republic. It is not a little ironic that Novotna died on the same weekend that Grigor Dimitrov was struggling to tame his nerves on a court in London. It was on a court in London in 1993—Centre Court Wimbledon—that Novotna suffered the worst meltdown in modern tennis history.
Serving at 4-1 40-30 against Steffi Graf in the third set of the women’s final, Novotna completely fell apart, losing 17 of the next 21 points (including four double faults) to hand Graf the title. The trophy ceremony yielded one of the more poignant scenes that tennis has ever witnessed: Novotna weeping on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent. Novotna should primarily be remembered for the coda to this story: in 1998, she overcame whatever emotional scars she bore and won Wimbledon, her only grand slam singles title. However, the 1993 final made her synonymous with choking and will always be the first thing that people think of when her name is mentioned.
Was Dimitrov thinking about Novotna as he labored to close out Jack Sock in the semifinals of the Nitto ATP Finals on Saturday and then struggled to finish off David Goffin in Sunday’s title match? I doubt it (for one thing, the Bulgarian was only two years old in 1993). And I can’t say that Novotna came to mind for me as I watched Dimitrov over the weekend. But choking was definitely on my mind. As gifted as he is—the Baby Fed nickname and all that—the 26-year-old Dimitrov has always struggled with the mental side of the game. A choker? That’s a harsh label. But he had a tendency to wobble in pressure situations, and a habit of throwing away leads.
In a match against Novak Djokovic in Indian Wells in 2013, Dimitrov, up 5-3 in the first set, double-faulted four times to surrender the break; he went on to lose the set and the match. The following year, he played Djokovic in the semifinals of Wimbledon and coughed up three straight doubles in the third game of the fourth set. He then blew three set points in the fourth-set tiebreaker, tossed in another double, and lost the match. At the 2015 Australian, he was up 5-2 in the fourth set against Andy Murray and promptly surrendered five straight games to give the Scot the match. Incredibly, the same thing happened when he played Murray in Cincinnati eight months later. Dimitrov was up 5-2 in the third set when he came apart and dropped five consecutive games. His most recent disaster was earlier this year, in Indian Wells, when he failed to capitalize on four match points and lost to Jack Sock in the third round.
This was the baggage he carried onto the court in his semifinal against Sock last Saturday night in London. With Papa Fed having lost earlier in the day to Goffin, Dimitrov, who had swept his round-robin matches (including a 6-2 6-0 pasting of Goffin) suddenly found himself the favorite to win the year-end tournament, which would be the biggest title of his career. All he had to do was keep his nerves in check. Gulp. He raced out to a 3-0 lead on Sock in the first set, then dropped six of the next seven games. Dimitrov skeptics shook their heads knowingly. But then Dimitrov turned it around, bageling Sock in the second set. In the eighth game of the third set, he got what figured to be a decisive break to go up 5-3. But once again, crossing the finish line became an odyssey. He squandered three match points and had to save two break points before clinching the win.
The final against Goffin was another whiplash affair. Dimitrov won the first set, Goffin the second. When Dimitrov broke to go up 4-2 in the third and then held for 5-2, he was back in a familiar position—and you just knew that going the next and final step was going to be an ordeal. Dimitrov played a couple of sensational points to go to love-40, triple match point. But then he got tight, stopped hitting out with the confidence he had displayed on the first three points of the game, and Goffin rallied to hold. Serving at 5-3, Dimitrov went up 40-15 two give himself two more match points. When he sprayed a shot long to blow the first one, my legs were quaking for him. On the next point, Goffin belted two forehands to send Dimitrov scrambling wide and deep on the deuce side, then came in behind a heavy inside-out forehand. Dimitrov put a weak backhand right on Goffin’s racket—and the Belgian netted an easy volley winner. If he had hit the ball an inch higher, who knows what may have unfolded from that point on. It is crazy, but Dimitrov’s career really might have hinged on which side of the net that ball landed.
Or maybe not. As Novotna proved, wilting under pressure isn’t an incurable condition, and past failures do not necessarily condemn a player to future ones. She suffered a gruesome loss at Wimbledon in 1993, and most people figured she would never bounce back from the anguish and embarrassment. But she did: five years later, on the very same court, she put the Graf match behind her and authored one of the most inspiring victories the sport has seen. (It should also be remembered that she won 16 grand slam doubles crowns and three Olympic medals.)
For all his tribulations, Dimitrov never endured a loss as harsh as the one Novotna took, and his victory last weekend didn’t have the same feel-good factor or redemptive quality that her Wimbledon title had. Still, it was great to see him pull through in two high-stakes matches. It has always been obvious that he had the talent to win majors; perhaps he is a little closer now to having the mettle needed to win one.