Viewed narrowly, Grigor Dimitrov did not endure a bad loss in the second round of Indian Wells on Saturday.
Everyone in the tennis world knows that Fernando Verdasco, while erratic, can be a very tough customer on any given day. The Spaniard has dismissed Rafael Nadal from majors. He very nearly made a Wimbledon semifinal on his least favorite surface. He played one of the great matches of this era in 2009 against Rafa in Australia. He excused Alexander Zverev from Roland Garros last year after the German had conquered Rome. He can play. Losing to Verdasco, especially in a three-set match after losing a first-set tiebreaker, is not a profound source of shame in itself. On an ATP Tour littered with injuries and unreliable performers, Verdasco represented a dangerous second-round draw for anyone in the field. Dimitrov drew the short straw, and he is now out of the rainy desert, headed for Miami.
The problem with Dimitrov’s loss, though, is the big picture, not the narrow one. The individual loss is not a crisis on its own terms, but the macro-level view of the Bulgarian’s career is darker than the dark gray skies which visited the Southern California tennis oasis normally bathed in sunshine.
Dimitrov is a walking fable at this point. A part of his game — lacking in confidence and prone to untimely lapses — evokes Chicken Little and a “sky is falling” mentality far more often than Grigor’s talents warrant. A player with his ability to hit every shot in the book should not doubt himself as often as he does in big moments.
Another aspect of Dimitrov’s story — more connected to how tennis pundits such as myself view him — evokes “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” This loss in itself is a false alarm as a measurement of Dimitrov’s career, because the opponent was especially dangerous. However, this kind of loss exists against the backdrop of so many worse losses throughout his tennis journey, a prime example being the loss to Guido Pella at Miami last year, and another example being the U.S. Open disaster against Andrey Rublev after leading 5-3 in the first set.
Many might savage Dimitrov in the press for losing this match to Verdasco, when a broader view merits a measure of leniency. The problem, though, with this “not as bad as it seems” loss for Dimitrov is that like a man who always gets in trouble with the legal system for minor to moderate crimes, he has accumulated a long list of prior offenses.
The man has to do things to compensate for his wayward ways in the past. Dimitrov, extending the analogy, has to perform “good works in the community” to build a level of trust from the community which evaluates him and wants to see him become a consistently productive member of society.
We who care about sports don’t root for players to win or lose, but as human beings, we don’t want to see talented performers fail to meet evident potential if they have the capacity to be special. In that vein, the tennis community hoped that winning the ATP Finals was a sign that Dimitrov was ready to take the next step, much as the tennis community hoped Dimitrov was ready to do damage at the U.S. Open after he won Cincinnati. Yet, much as Dimitrov failed to back up a big achievement in the next signature event when he crashed out of the U.S. Open, he has similarly failed to deliver the goods in Australia or Indian Wells.
The attempt to compensate — and to thereby establish newer, better, more productive habits — continues to elude Dimitrov. No, losing a three-setter to Verdasco in one isolated instance is not a humiliation or a disgrace or anything of the sort.
It is, however, an unsuccessful attempt to compensate for the past and reduce the sting of Grigor Dimitrov’s priors on a long rap sheet.
At a time when a mere bread crumb of consistency would offer such a radiant sign of hope for his career, Dimitrov — sometimes unlucky, sometimes not good, nearly always questioning himself — can’t manage to collect the smallest scrap which falls from the table.
Novak Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios are learning how to get healthier. If they play and lose these days, their health statuses will regularly represent the reason why they don’t win. Grigor Dimitrov is not a physically injured player, which is why his pain as he leaves Southern California is more profound than the pain felt by any other player on the ATP Tour.
The sad ballad of his career continues.