The notion of an estimable player declaring through the force of his personality and the quality of his performances that he has “come of age” is too often trivialized. It is ingrained in the vocabulary of sports, a lazy way of describing something of larger and more enduring value, an inaccurate depiction of what has really happened out on the competitive battlefield. And yet, in my estimation, Great Britain’s dignified Kyle Edmund irrefutably came of age out on Rod Laver Arena in winning the single most important tennis match of his career.
The 23-year-old had never appeared in a quarterfinal at a Grand Slam tournament before. He had survived a pair of harrowing five-set skirmishes in Melbourne just to earn the right to meet Grigor Dimitrov on a sunny afternoon in for a place in the penultimate round of the season’s leadoff major. Since Open tennis commenced in 1968, only five men from Edmund’s country had made it to the semifinals of a major tennis tournament. Andy Murray has done it 21 times. Tim Henman got that far on six occasions, Roger Taylor thrice, and both John Lloyd and Greg Rusedski realized the feat just once.
Now the self effacing Edmund has joined that elite cast of Englishmen by virtue of a hard earned, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph over No. 3 seed. The world No. 49 competed with equanimity on an occasion that might have overwhelmed a lesser man daunted by the weight of history. But Edmund, beaten in both of his previous head-to-head contests against Dimitrov, came out on top this time with a mature performance against a far more experienced campaigner who had not only reached the semifinals of the 2017 Australian Open, but also reached the same round at Wimbledon in 2014.
Clear in his convictions, unwavering in pursuit of victory, tactically agile and strategically sound, Edmund outplayed Dimitrov across the board. He succeeded primarily on the strength of his explosive forehand, but also served well and fully exploited the vulnerabilities of an opponent who never quite found the range on an afternoon when his game was malfunctioning at critical junctures in all but one of the sets.
Some authorities believed that Dimitrov might finally be ready to come through on a premier stage after a stellar 2017 season. He was agonizingly close to a spot in the Australian Open final last year at this time. Rafael Nadal was perched precariously at 3-4 in the fifth set and down 0-30 in the eighth game before striking back magnificently to overcome Dimitrov under the lights. Over the summer, Dimitrov captured his first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. As the year concluded in autumn, Dimitrov secured the most prestigious prize of his career by taking the ATP Finals in London.
So Dimitrov had every reason to believe that this might be his time to rise above the pack. Yet Edmund had quietly prepared himself for this seminal moment in his career. He knew that he was clearly the underdog, but refused to sell himself short. Edmund beat Dimitrov to the punch time and again, controlling the tempo of the skirmish for the most part. He realized that Dimitrov was struggling as he had done for the majority of the tournament with his signature one-handed topspin backhand, and that meant that the British competitor had to deal with a barrage of low, sliced backhands. Edmund was up to that task, and he never backed off from hitting out freely off his fearsome forehand. Moreover, he was more willing than Dimitrov to take his backhand up the line, winning some pivotal points with that shot.
Edmund drew first blood in this battle. He broke serve in the opening game as Dimitrov sliced a backhand long under little duress. Edmund consolidated that break swiftly, serving an ace for 30-0, holding at love for a 2-0 lead. Dimitrov promptly settled down. He held at the cost of only one point before Edmund replicated that feat in the fourth game. But then Dimitrov briefly reassembled his game, sweeping three games in a row for a 4-3 lead, winning 13 of 17 points in the process.
That surge from the Bulgarian did not rattle Edmund. He held at 15 for 4-4. Dimitrov was riddled with doubts once more. In the ninth game, he double faulted for 15-30, and was coaxed into an error by a searing forehand from Edmund. At 15-40, Edmund uncharacteristically missed an opening for a down-the-line forehand winner, but he sealed the break with a spectacular second serve return on the following point. Running around his backhand, he rifled a forehand return inside in with little margin for error. His devastatingly potent shot landed safely in the corner for an outright winner.
Edmund had the break for 5-4, but he trailed 15-40 when he served for the set in the tenth game. He came out of that corner unhesitatingly. A pair of unstoppable first serves took Edmund back to deuce. Dimitrov garnered a third break point, but Edmund erased it with another service winner. The British player squandered one set point but wrapped up the set neatly on his second set point with a big first serve out wide in the ad court that left Dimitrov helpless. Edmund thus captured the set, 6-4.
He did not, however, start the second set the way he would have liked. After an easy hold for Dimitrov, Edmund faltered flagrantly in the second game. Dimitrov gained the break for 2-0 by breaking at 30. Dimitrov was in a 30-40 predicament in the third game, but swept five points in a row to hold for 3-0. Edmund nearly lost his serve again, but saved two break points on his way to 1-3. After both players held, Edmund had another opening, but wasted it. Dimitrov served three double faults in the seventh game and faced one break point, but the 26-year-old escaped, moving on to 5-2. Two games later, serving for the set, Dimitrov was determined and unbending. He held at 30 with an immaculately placed first serve down the T. Set to Dimitrov, 6-3. It was one set all.
Edmund was undismayed by his lost opportunities in the second set. He went right back to work with deep pride and utter professionalism. Crucially, he saved a break point in the first game of the third set. Having led 30-0 in that game, he played three abysmal points in succession, but then a first serve to the backhand elicited an errant chipped return. Edmund got the hold for 1-0. Dimitrov dealt with some danger himself at 1-2, saving a break point with some of his most inspired tennis of the day, shifting in dazzling fashion from defense to offense during that backcourt exchange. He held on for 2-2.
Unswayed, Edmund held at 15 for 3-2 with an ace out wide before Dimitrov retaliated with a love hold for 3-3. Edmund, buoyed by an ace for 30-0, held at love for 4-3. He then played a remarkable return game to reach 30-40 in the eighth game. Dimitrov was under extraordinary pressure, and did not handle it well, double faulting tamely into the net. Serving for the set at 5-3, Edmund trailed 15-30, but he met that moment regally, releasing back-to-back forehand winners. On set point, his first serve was too good. Dimitrov’s missed a chipped backhand return by a wide margin. Edmund had secured the set, 6-3. Improbably, he led two sets to one.
Yet the toughest part for Edmund was ahead. Dimitrov was going to fight fiercely to the finish, and Edmund surely felt anxiety at times unlike anything he may ever have experienced at a time of consequence at a major during his career.
Across the first four games of the fourth set, both men sedulously held into their serves. Dimitrov dropped only one point in two service games while Edmund conceded only two points. It was 2-2. But Edmund persistently made his returns in the fifth game. Picking away purposefully, he broke at 30 for a 3-2 lead. Edmund clearly was too acutely aware of the score. In the sixth game, he erred four times off the ground. A resolute Dimitrov broke back at 15 for 3-3, probing patiently until he could draw the mistakes from his opponent.
Now Dimitrov was competing with renewed vigor and authority. He saved a break point when Edmund missed a forehand return off a first serve. Dimitrov closed that game with an ace down the T to establish a 4-3 lead. As was the case in the first set, he had come from a break down into more positive territory.
Edmund served precariously at 3-4, 30-30. At that moment, a fifth set seemed very possible. Edmund, however, wanted no part of that scenario. His mission was to close the account in four sets, to stay away from the theater of a fifth set. At 30-30, Edmund profited from a forehand unforced error from Dimitrov. He then released an excellent second serve that was too much for Dimitrov. Edmund had the essential hold for 4-4.
The pressure had shifted back to the man on the other side of the net. Edmund opened the ninth game with a sparkling forehand down the line passing shot. He advanced to 15-40, but Dimitrov saved a break point there with a fine first serve to the backhand. At 30-40, Dimitrov lost his serve, missing a routine shot off the backhand.
And so Kyle Edmund was serving for the match, knowing precisely what was at stake, realizing he was on the edge of an accomplishment he would not have envisioned two weeks earlier. At 15-15, he double faulted, but he arrived at 30-30 after a shaky forehand from Dimitrov. Given that reprieve, Edmund pounced. He served an ace down the T for 40-30. With Edmund at match point, Dimitrov sliced a backhand that was called long, but Edmund could not immediately rejoice. Dimitrov challenged the call. Edmund stood there waiting for what must have seemed like an eternity, but the Hawkeye replay confirmed the call. Game, set, match, Edmund.
Edmund will be one of two unseeded semifinalists among the men this year, joining either Tennnys Sandgren or Hyeon Chung in the penultimate round. It is a worthy honor for an ascendant player who has authentically come of age.