Grigor Dimitrov endured a disappointing loss to Kyle Edmund at the Australian Open in January, but in spite of that bitter pill, he still made the quarterfinals of a major tournament, a result which would be acceptable for the Bulgarian IF it occurred a lot more regularly.
That’s a big IF, though… and that is the problem with Dimitrov.
The question — “Will Dimitrov become consistent at a high level?” — has hung around him for so long that it’s pointless to write another such column. As one might say in a courtroom during a trial, “asked and answered.” This column will not explore that question.
It became apparent at the French Open — in another first-week exit — that Dimitrov’s decent-but-not-great Australian Open was not going to lead to anything bigger in 2018. His 2017 Australian Open did not lead to any real progress at the majors. He took advantage of attrition to win Cincinnati that summer, and he did elevate his game to win the ATP Finals, the best moment of his career, but after a fruitless clay spring (creating a Monte Carlo semifinal and nothing more), any lingering hopes for a Dimitrov transformation and an entrenched residence at the top tier of men’s tennis were blown to smithereens. That conversation is tabled until further notice.
The story of the Cincinnati Masters is not about Dimitrov’s future, but about the past several months. Everyone in the sport wondered if the ATP Finals championship was going to mark a positive turning point. Instead, it has been followed by stasis… and now, in Ohio this week, regression.
Dimitrov’s failure to go deep into the Cincinnati draw — sealed by his round-of-16 loss on Friday to Novak Djokovic, in which he had led by a set and a break on Thursday night — means he will shed 910 rankings points. The stagnation of players near the bottom of the top 10 means Dimitrov will still have a place in the top 10 for now, but with the U.S. Open coming up and Dimitrov being several slots out of a top-eight spot in the ATP race to London, Grigor is staring at another huge points drop when the ATP Finals arrive in November. Dimitrov, in Cincinnati, has failed to back up one of the two big 2017 results which pushed him upward in the rankings. He won’t even get a chance to back up the other one in London if he can’t do something big (semifinals at minimum) at the U.S. Open, or win an autumn Masters event, in the coming months.
The bill is coming due for him. This is the price he is paying for not being able to shake free of inconsistency, not being able to ditch the penchant for wasting good starts to matches, and for not finding a way to become a regular quarterfinal-level player at majors and Masters.
It might still be too much to ask to expect Grigor to make major or Masters finals. Guys named Nadal and Djokovic and Federer are still very good at playing tennis, in case you hadn’t noticed, so one can still cut the Bulgarian some slack in that regard. However, a player with well-rounded skills — not a great return, but a full arsenal of groundstrokes with variations of spin, placement and angle — should be able to go deep in a majority of tournaments he plays. This challenge keeps being put in front of Grigor’s eyes, and he keeps shrinking in the face of that test.
This Cincinnati loss is tennis’s way of showing him that his failure to change carries a cost. That cost will be magnified if Dimitrov doesn’t post a huge result in New York, and fails to follow up in Shanghai or Bercy. Dimitrov isn’t outside the top 10 yet, but at the end of the year, that position could be imperiled.
Grigor Dimitrov out of the top 10 in November? It shouldn’t be the case, but it could be.
The bill is coming due. Grigor has to fix his house in New York, but right now, he doesn’t seem to have enough funds.