Go back four years, to August of 2014.
Go back to Toronto for a previous edition of the Rogers Cup.
Go back to the main stadium court for a men’s quarterfinal on a Friday afternoon.
Four years ago, Grigor Dimitrov made the semifinals of Wimbledon. Four years ago, Milos Raonic had also made the semifinals of Wimbledon. Four years ago, Dimitrov and Raonic were both 23 years old, the future mostly in front of them, the “ATP Lost Boys” not yet a punching bag or a sign of crisis on the ATP Tour. Four years ago, the Big Four were still a thing, Stan Wawrinka was beginning to make his ascent, and Novak Djokovic’s remarkably dominant 18-month run (January of 2015 through June of 2016) had not yet begun.
Four years ago, people wondered if Roger Federer was ever going to win an 18th major; a 20th major was far off the radar screen. Four years ago, Tomas Berdych made an Australian Open semifinal. Four years ago, so much was dramatically different about the world of tennis compared to now. It is only four years, and yet in four years, a lot changes.
Of all the changes which have taken place in men’s tennis over four years, several rate as bigger surprises than the turns in the careers of Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov. Andy Murray becoming World No. 1 in 2016 was bigger. So was Federer and Nadal winning six straight majors until Djokovic broke that string this past July at Wimbledon. Yes, other changes have been larger and more resonant in the larger course of tennis history, but the divergent paths of Anderson and Dimitrov are worth noting, since they met in Toronto four years ago and then met again in the same city — in the same stadium, in the same quarterfinal round — on Friday in the 2018 Rogers Cup.
Four years ago, Kevin Anderson hadn’t reached a single major quarterfinal — that was still one year away at the 2015 U.S. Open. Anderson had the raw tools to produce strong results — maybe not major semifinals and finals, but certainly better than what he had shown. In August of 2014, Anderson was John Isner WITHOUT the bunch of Masters semifinal appearances. The version of Anderson which existed in 2014 was — like the version of Isner which existed through early 2018 — a player who should not have been expected to REGULARLY make the semifinal stage of big tournaments, but who should have been able to make those deep runs every now and then, let’s say once a year or at least once every six majors.
Anderson and Isner serve too powerfully and effectively to NOT win stacks of matches in certain segments. Yes, their weaknesses and limitations would expose them most of the year against top-10 players. Again, no one should have expected them to be every-week semifinalists on tour. Yet, the reality that they practically never made major quarterfinals — year after year after year (only one between them through Wimbledon of 2015, and only two through Wimbledon of 2017) — was the true surprise.
SURELY, one would have thought, these mammoth servers would get hot, ride the wave, and make a major quarterfinal twice in a three-year span, an average of one out of every six majors (2 of 12 = 1 of 6, or 16.7 percent). That’s not a GREAT percentage, but it would represent occasional prosperity. That expression — “occasional prosperity” — is what players in Anderson and Isner’s tier should aspire to: not being great all the time due to limitations in court coverage, defense, and full variety from the back of the court, but having substantial weapons to dominate on serve and hit opponents off the court. They won’t generally beat players inside the top 10 and especially the top 5, but they can certainly handle players ranked 11-20 half the time, which is generally what gets a player to the quarterfinals of a major on an occasional basis.
Yet, four years ago, Kevin Anderson hadn’t made one major quarterfinal at age 28. Several months before August of 2014, Stan Wawrinka made his breakthrough in Australia by winning a first major title at age 28 in January. Little did anyone know how much Stan would inspire his ATP peers to awaken from slumber in their late 20s and early 30s. Today, we can see how much of an effect Stan had on other guys in the ATP locker room, but back then, the gradual awakening hadn’t yet spread through much of the tour. Anderson had still not found the keys needed to unlock his talent.
Dimitrov seemed to be on the verge of stepping through the door and entering a fancy new house of tennis success.
It is true that Dimitrov should have won the fourth set against Djokovic in the Wimbledon semifinals. He shouldn’t have won the match, but he should have forced a fifth stanza. That lapse, however, was allowable. The moment was new for Dimitrov, and as said many times in this space, being a young tennis player inevitably brings harsh lessons. The key is to learn what they have to teach. Dimitrov gained the kind of experience a tennis player needs to eventually graduate to the next level. He seemed to be on his way.
Dimitrov’s coping mechanisms were in development back then. He was an open book, soaking up knowledge, and likely — in the estimation of many, including myself — to one day lift a major trophy. Not eight, not 10, not any large number, but at least a few. Dimitrov was building his career and gathering the kinds of “almost moments” which often lead to ultimate triumphs later on.
Dimitrov’s promising outlook and Anderson’s dreary penchant for failing to win important matches were never more starkly apparent than when they met in Toronto those four long years ago.
Anderson won the first set and gained break point in the second set at 5-5, 30-40 on Dimitrov’s serve. Dimitrov came up with a big serve and erased that break point. There was nothing Kando could do about that hold for 6-5. However, when serving to stay in the second set at 5-6, Anderson double-faulted away the set instead of forcing Dimitrov to play. That was a first — and familiar — sign of Anderson’s nerves, as he stood on the precipice of a first Masters 1000 hardcourt semifinal appearance.
Anderson shrugged off that ugly end to the second set and gained double match point on his serve at *5-4, 40-15 in the third. On each of those match points, Anderson hit a strong serve which elicited a short ball from Dimitrov. Both shots were sitters, cream puffs begging to be swatted away into the open court for easy winners. Anderson choked on both, especially the second one at 40-30, standing right over the net and somehow hitting the ball into the twine. At deuce, Anderson made two more very ugly errors to surrender the break of serve.
Anderson picked himself off the canvas again, gaining a 5-4 lead in the final-set tiebreaker several minutes later, on his serve. At *5-4, Dimitrov fell down when returning Anderson’s serve. Anderson just had to sweep the next groundstroke into the deuce corner while Dimitrov struggled to get up on the ad side of the court, but Anderson hit the groundstroke back to the ad corner. Dimitrov retrieved it and won the point for 5-5. Dimitrov then closed out the tiebreaker, 8-6, leaving Anderson wondering how he let that match get away. It was a vintage representation of Anderson’s then-chronic inability to get over the hump. Dimitrov didn’t carry the run of play, but he forced Anderson to answer questions nearly every step of the way, applying enough match pressure to make Anderson think about the moment, which the South African wasn’t good at doing.
Dimitrov made a Masters semifinal in 2014, one which figured to begin a relatively large and fat stack of such appearances. Anderson remained stuck in his mind, trapped in the mental prison of doubt and distrust.
Four years ago, the tennis world appeared to be moving in specific directions for Dimitrov and Anderson, and those two directions could not have been more different.
Fast-forward to this past Friday, four years later.
Dimitrov had won the past five meetings between the two players. All of those matches were close. None were decided in straight sets… but Grigor regularly prevailed. If you watched the 2014 Toronto quarterfinal and then didn’t follow men’s tennis for the next four years, you would not have been surprised at all by that fact. Yet, outside of his control of Anderson in tight scoreboard situations, Dimitrov spent the next four years faltering quite often in those scenarios. There were occasional exceptions, particularly in his strong 2017 season, but for the most part, the growth and development which were evident in Dimitrov in 2014 did not lead to a continued process of evolution.
Dimitrov has indeed transformed his level of physical fitness. Few players on tour are more able-bodied than Dimitrov, who outlasted Jared Donaldson 10-8 in the fifth set at Roland Garros earlier this year and told reporters after the match that he was ready to play a few more hours if necessary. Yet, for all the physical fitness Dimitrov has demonstrated, his mental game lies in disrepair. He double faults frequently in pressure games (such as 4-5 or 5-6 when serving to stay in a set). His shots break down in important moments. He doesn’t move his feet on returns and gets caught flat-footed. He is a fleet-footed athlete, but the split-second delays in reactions and response are testament to the nerves which weigh him down. The 23-year-old who was climbing the ladder didn’t continue to ascend to a greater height. 2017 had its moments, but his two signature accomplishments that year — the Cincinnati Masters title and ATP Finals championship — occurred against the backdrop of a depleted field, with no Djokovic, Murray or Wawrinka in the way and (in Cincinnati) weather creating a backlogged schedule which left many other players tired. The 2018 season would tell us if a Dimitrov resurgence was real; the verdict could not be any clearer as we sit here in August.
Then consider what has happened to Dimitrov’s opponent on Friday in Toronto. Kevin Anderson was fortunate to have avoided Alexander Zverev at the 2017 U.S. Open. He got a dream draw. To his credit, he took advantage of it and made his first major final. Nevertheless, it was easy to chalk up that run to a boatload of good fortune and the same attritional forces which enabled Dimitrov to win Cincinnati and the ATP Finals. Anderson, like Dimitrov, entered 2018 with a target on his back and a lot to prove to his doubters.
Unlike Dimitrov, Anderson has not merely started a climb to a higher level of relevance and success; he has scaled some jagged rock formations at very lofty elevations.
Anderson busted down the door of a first Masters semifinal on clay in Madrid, but that was merely a warm-up act. He handled an in-form Gael Monfils in the fourth round of Wimbledon to make his third career major quarterfinal. When he fell behind by two sets to Federer in the quarterfinals, it seemed his run was over, but then Kando steeled himself, as though he wanted to declare to all the world that he was more — much more — than “the guy who got the lucky draw at the U.S. Open.”
Anderson fought off a match point against Federer, swiped the third set, dominated the fourth set, dug out of a few 0-30 holes on serve in a tense fifth set, and won 13-11 in a prolonged struggle. Knocking Federer out of Wimbledon after trailing by two sets? The 2014 version of Anderson could not have thought that was possible. The 2018 version did… and the 2018 version was so newly fortified with inner belief that he then outlasted Isner in a match exceeding six and a half hours in length. Anderson was toasted by the time he faced Djokovic in his first Wimbledon final, but by making a second major final, Anderson promptly removed the “one-hit wonder” label from his back, changing the way the locker room and the rest of the sport thought about him.
Grigor Dimitrov has more natural talent than Kevin Anderson. His shots flow more easily and contain more variety. Grigor can cover the court more effectively and perform better from defensive positions. Dimitrov has more touch and slice. He might not be great at net, but Anderson is worse. Anderson has a better serve and return, but on a larger overall level, Dimitrov possesses more raw tennis skills. If both players play to their full potential, Dimitrov should be the one who wins.
Yet, these four years after that Toronto meeting in which Anderson’s mental block was so profound, here were these two men — reunited again on Canadian soil in a Masters quarterfinal. Their identities could not have undergone more of an overhaul.
Anderson was the one hitting fluidly and cleanly. Anderson controlled the court and dominated the internal battle of clarity, concentration and confidence. Whereas the 2014 Toronto match featured three razor-close sets, Anderson put his boot on Dimitrov’s throat early in each set on Friday. He roared to an easy 6-2, 6-2 win without the slightest hint of a hiccup.
One man had become liberated, the other receding into helplessness. If you remember the 2014 Toronto quarterfinal, you would have sworn that Dimitrov would be the high flyer in 2018, and that Anderson would be the man left muttering to himself in the corner and on changeovers.
It is only four years, but it is striking to recall Toronto in August of 2014 and absorb how much the careers of Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov have veered in decidedly unexpected directions.