For so many years, the game's closest followers had been waiting for the gifted Grigor Dimitrov to fully come of age. People in the cognoscenti had long believed in the Bulgarian's capacity to play tennis of the highest order, to compete favorably with the best in his business, and to reap the rewards of his wide range of talent. By 2013, Dimitrov had acquired the flattering nickname of "Baby Fed." He finished that season at No. 23 in the world and concluded the next season at No. 11.
At that time, the sky seemed to be his limit. It seemed certain that it would only be a matter of time before he climbed into the top five, and the feeling grew that he would keep elevating his game steadily and persuasively. But that script was not followed, for any number of reasons. In many ways, his 2015 and 2016 seasons were inexplicably mediocre. He slipped to No. 28 in the former of those years and then made a modest surge to No. 17 in the latter. His admirers were deeply concerned. His worldwide fan base lamented his status in a territory that was well beneath where he belonged.
But, in 2017, Dimitrov went to work assiduously, applied himself more comprehensively than ever before, and at last established himself unequivocally as a front-line player with designs on the future. Dimitrov set the tone for his season by winning the title in Brisbane and going to the penultimate round of the Australian Open. Dimitrov was ahead 4-3 in the fifth set against Rafael Nadal, and the Spaniard was serving at 15-40 in the eighth game. Dimitrov gave it everything he had, losing gallantly 6-4 in that riveting fifth set. He won another title in Sofia, Bulgaria. Over the summer, he took his first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. To be sure, he had too many unjustifiable losses, but now he has closed the year by claiming the most prestigious title of his career, winning the Nitto ATP Finals in London without losing a match all week, eclipsing Belgium's unwavering David Goffin 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 in a final that was awfully well played on both sides of the net.
Neither Dimitrov nor Goffin had ever qualified for this elite, eight men, round robin tournament before. They knew full well what it meant to compete for such a consequential crown, and both players understandably had some anxious moments along the way. But the fact remains that the contest brought out some extraordinary tennis from Dimitrov and Goffin, who fought for two-and-a-half hours across an entertaining evening. All three sets were hard fought, soundly played and suspenseful. Neither man backed off in the tight corners of the battle. In the end, though, Dimitrov was the better player when it counted down the stretch. Yet it took a monumental effort for the 26-year-old to get across the finish line, through little fault of his own.
In the early stages, Dimitrov was largely outplayed, and frequently on his heels. He was broken in the opening game as Goffin connected stylishly with an inside out forehand return winner, right smack on the sideline. Dimitrov broke right back for 1-1. From deuce in that game, he implemented a pair of effective looped forehands down the line, eliciting point concluding backhand errors from his adversary. But, in the third game, Dimitrov double faulted to fall behind 0-30. Goffin struck gold again with an inside out forehand winner for 0-40. Dimitriov made it back to 30-40, but Gofin broke through there with a scintillating backhand passing shot winner.
It was 2-1 for the Belgian. From 30-30 in the fourth game, he released consecutive aces to make it 3-1. Dimitrov survived a deuce game to hold on tenuously for 2-3, but Goffin remained determined and unflagging. He served a double fault in the sixth game that locked the score at 30-30, but then he went wide with a first serve in the deuce court to set up a backhand crosscourt winner. At 40-30, Goffin sent a 120 MPH first serve to his adversary's backhand, and Dimitrov netted a chipped return. 4-2, Goffin.
Dimitrov recognized his plight, and quietly raised his intensity. From 0-15 in the seventh game, he swept four points in a row to hold for 3-4. Goffin now needed two holds to gain a one-set lead. But he could not achieve that objective. Serving at 4-3, he double faulted into the net at 30-30. Dimitrov garnered the following point with a deep return down the middle, drawing an errant forehand from the Belgian. The Bulgarian was back to 4-4. At 15-15 in the crucial ninth game, Dimitrov came out on top in perhaps the point of the match. Goffin drew Dimitrov forward with a low sidespin backhand down the line. Dimitrov somehow dug it out, snapped a forehand approach down the line into the corner, and then read Goffin's backhand pass down the line. The Bulgarian punched a low forehand angled drop volley into the clear, and took a 30-15 lead. He lost the next point but held at 30 with a crosscourt forehand passing shot winner and a cagey body serve that was unmanageable for Goffin.
Dimitrov had collected three games in a row to lead 5-4, but Goffin held at 15 for 5-5, producing a pair of service winners down the T, and a backhand crosscourt winner, in that stellar game. Dimitrov then wandered into difficulty at 5-5, double faulting two times in a row to trail 15-30. From there, however, he was magnificent, making an arduous forehand passing shot down the line that stifled Goffin. Then, Dimitrov served an ace out wide. He held at 30 for 6-5. Goffin drifted to 15-40 in the twelfth game, but saved those two set points with forehand winners to make it deuce. Dimoitrov created a third set point opportunity, but Goffin erased it with an ace down the T. The Belgian saved a fourth set point, but Dimitrov sealed it on his fifth set point with a heavy topspin backhand drawing an errant backhand from the Belgian.
Dimitrov had persevered to claim that set, 7-5. He had won five of the last six games to turn it around completely. It was a set Goffin could well have won, but Dimitrov had taken it away with his greater variety off the backhand side and a fierce will to win. Both players held at love in the first two games of the second set. Dimitrov was taken to deuce in the third game but an excellent first served followed by an ace took him to 2-1. Goffin served another love game for 2-2, but Dimitrov was pushing hard now to break the match wide open.
He held at 15 for 3-2, closing out that game with an ace and an overhead winner. Dimitrov reached 30-40 on Goffin's serve in the sixth game. This was a break point for 4-2, and an opportunity for the Bulgarian to put himself within striking distance of victory. Yet, Goffin was not buckling. He clipped the line with a backhand crosscourt winner, took the next point, and then delivered an ace down the T. Back to 3-3 was Goffin; he remained very much in contention.
Two double faults from Dimitrov in the seventh game hurt him considerably. Goffin broke at 15 with a forehand inside-in winner. Buoyed by an ace in the next game, the Belgian moved to 5-3. Two games later, he served unhesitatingly for the set, and held at love. Goffin had taken four of the last five games to seal the set, 6-4. A third set would settle it all, and Goffin clearly had the momentum.
Dimitrov was in an immediate bind in the opening game of the final set, falling behind 15-40. An ace carried him to 30-40, and an exceptionally deep second serve got him to deuce. Goffin garnered a third break point, but Dimitrov erased it with a service winner down the T. The Belgian gave himself a fourth break point opportunity, but missed a backhand down the line. After five deuces, Dimitrov held on commendably for 1-0 in a pivotal game. Now Goffin saved a break point on his way to 1-1. But Dimitrov answered firmly, holding at 15 with a service winner down the T for 2-1. Goffin seemed to be losing a trace of his confidence, but, despite a double fault at 40-30, he held on steadfastly for 2-2.
Dimitrov held at love for 3-2, and then made his move emphatically to break in the sixth game. Goffin saved a break point, and reached game point twice. But, after the third and last deuce, Goffin missed consecutive backhands down the line. The Belgian was pressing. Dimitrov was the superior defender. Dimitrov had more options. Goffin had explored every opportunity he had to get up to the net at unexpected times, to catch Dimitrov off guard, to take away the Bulgarian's sliced backhand down the line. But now he was up against an opponent who refused to lose.
Serving at 4-2, Dimitrov held at 15. With Goffin serving to stay in the match at 2-5, Dimitrov strung together three brilliant points to reach 0-40. He chased down a drop volley from Goffin, flicked a backhand down the line, and cut off the Belgian's volley with a crisp backhand volley crosscourt: 0-15. He scampered forward to answer another drop shot, lobbed beautifully over Goffin, and then put away an overhead: 0-30. Now he ripped a backhand pass right at Goffin to set up a backhand crosscourt passing shot winner: 0-40.
Here was Dimitrov surging dynamically. He stood at triple match point. But Goffin wasn't going anywhere. He unleashed a crackling, flat backhand crosscourt for 15-40, and an ace for 30-40. Dimitrov netted an inside out forehand from a deep position, and, remarkably, it was deuce. Goffin collected the next two points for a brave hold, forcing Dimitrov to face the burden of serving for the match. Dimitrov may have been disconcerted and anxious, but he simply got on with his task. At 40-15, the Bulgarian drove a forehand passing shot long, but, on his second match point, a dipping backhand pass got the job done. Victory was his, by score of 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. That was no mean feat. In the round robin competition, Dimitrov had routed Goffin 6-0, 6-2 four days earlier. In the history of the year-end tournament, there had been 16 rematches in the finals between players who had clashed in the round robin. On nine of those occasions, the losing player in the round robin had turned the tables in the title round contest.
Dimitrov had gone 3-0 in round robin play, edging Dominic Thiem 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, accounting for Goffin, and closing with a 6-1, 6-1 dismissal of Pablo Carreno Busta, a replacement for the ailing Rafael Nadal. Nadal had pulled out of the Paris indoor event after reaching the quarters because his right knee was acting up again. He would have better served himself and the tournament had he withdrawn altogether from London, but he could not resist giving it a try. Yet. he never looked physically up to par in a 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4 loss to Goffin. In his condition, Nadal realized he had no business even winning a set. Down 4-5 in the second set on serve, he saved a match point, getting away with a short ball, profiting from a mistake off the forehand from Goffin.
At 5-6, Nadal trailed 0-40, staring at triple match point against him. He came alive with a forehand down the line winner, a backhand crosscourt winner and another winning shot. He held on with that flurry of winners, played a terrific tie-break, but soon faded. He went down two breaks in the final set, got one of them back, but eventually suffered an inevitable loss. Nadal announced right away that he was pulling out of the tournament.
Goffin recovered from his one-sided round robin defeat against Dimitrov to take apart Thiem, finishing with a 2-1 record and a place in the semifinals. In the Boris Becker Group, Federer was unbeaten in three matches to finish as the leader. He never entirely found his form, breaking Jack Sock just once in a 6-4, 7-6 (4) win, and then ousting Sascha Zverev in a three set skirmish. Zverev saved two set points on serve at 5-6 to reach a first set tie-break, and led 4-0 in that critical sequence. But his sporadically brilliant forehand went south. Federer rallied from 5-6 and set point down to win that tie-break 8-6. The Swiss led 2-0 in the second set, but lost serve twice and dropped the set before pulling away 7-6 (6), 5-7, 6-1. And in his last round robin match, Federer was beaten in an opening set tie-break against Marin Cilic. The Wimbledon finalist served at 4-5 in the second set, and had not yet been broken.
But Cilic deteriorated badly. A cascade of errors cost him his serve, and the set was abruptly gone. Federer captured eight of the last nine games from 4-4 in that second set. Cilic totally lost his way. Federer prevailed 6-7(5) 6-4, 6-1. The big Croatian faltered similarly in his two other round robin defeats. In his first assignment against Jack Sock, Cilic led 3-0 in the final set before Sock got back in the match. Cilic then had 4-2 in the tie-break, but never won another point. Sock triumphed 5-7, 6-2, 7-6 (4).
Sock and Zverev squared off, knowing that the winner would advance to the semifinals and the loser would go home. Zverev was up a break in the final set at 1-0 when Sock was assessed a point penalty. But Zverev proceeded to drop four games in a row. He still rallied from 1-4 to 4-4 but lost the last two games from there, double faulting meekly at 4-5, 30-30 before bungling a forehand. Sock got the victory 6-4, 1-6, 6-4. So, he earned a semifinal showdown against Dimitrov.
Sock rallied from 0-3 and break point down to win the first set 6-4. Dimitrov retaliated to take the second at the cost of only nine points in six games. They were locked at 3-3 in the final set before Dimitrov captured three games in a row to complete a 4-6, 6-0, 6-3 win, although Sock had the Bulgarian worried in the last game. Dimitrov had double match point at 40-15, but a scorching backhand down the line from Sock was too good. Sock then hit a solid inside out forehand that Dimitrov sent into the net off his backhand side. That made it deuce.
The tension on both sides of the net was unmistakable. Dimitrov saved a break point with a forehand volley winner, and then moved to match point for the third time; he totally miss-hit a forehand way out of court. After a forced error off the forehand, Dimitrov faced a second break point; this one he saved as Sock netted a routine backhand. When Sock netted a forehand return, Dimitrov arrived at match point for the third time. A superb sliced backhand down the line was enough to draw an error from Sock. Dimitrov came through deservedly, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3.
Adding to the anxiety for Dimitrov as he closed out his meeting with Sock was this: Federer was out of the tournament.
In six previous career contests against Goffin, Federer had never lost. He had dropped only two sets in all of those matches. The last time they collided, only last month in Basel, Federer embarrassed Goffin 6-1, 6-2 in the semifinals of Basel.
A similar scoreline seemed likely this time as Federer swept through the first set 6-2 in London. But, thereafter, Goffin was always beating the Swiss to the punch, striking first in the rallies, serving and returning with more authority. The second game of the second set was the turning point. Federer had three game points, but lost his serve for the first time when his forehand inside-in approach left the court wide open for a Goffin passing shot winner. Goffin led 2-0 and had a foothold in the match. At 4-2 he was down break point, but Federer sprayed a wild forehand crosscourt long. Goffin held on. Serving for the set at 5-3, Goffin confidently held at love.
In the third set, Goffin served at 0-1, 0-30, but he dealt with that situation calmly, sweeping four points in a row to reach 1-1. With Federer serving at 15-30 in the third game, Goffin played a point that was emblematic of his superiority on the day against a slightly off-form Federer. The Belgian laced a backhand down the line, made a delayed approach to the net, and put away an overhead. Federer saved one break point at 15-40 but was outclassed on the second. Goffin's deep return of serve forced Federer into a relatively weak half volley, and then the Belgian drove a deep two-hander with pace to provoke a backhand error from Federer.
Goffin had the break for 2-1, but Federer had a break point in the fourth game. His return clipped the net cord, but Goffin was not thrown off stride. He approached confidently, read Federer's passing shot easily, and put away a forehand volley. Goffin held on for 3-1. In his last three service games from that juncture, he won 12 of 13 points. At 5-4, serving for the match, he opened with a pair of aces and held at 15 to win 2-6, 6-3, 6-4. Goffin became only the sixth player to topple both Nadal and Federer in the same tournament.
And yet, he could not overcome an unbending Dimitrov in the final. Dimitrov should be ready now to have an excellent 2018 season. He will define himself even more over the year ahead, when he will surely be in the thick of two or three majors. How he will fare remains to be seen. In the meantime, Dimitrov ought to pause briefly and celebrate the substantial progress he made all through the year we are leaving behind.