Roger Federer was not fully healthy on Tuesday night at the U.S. Open.
Federer took a medical timeout after the fourth set which was clearly not tactical — not this one, not this time.
Federer’s serve speeds dropped several miles per hour in the fifth set.
Federer was not able to play with full range of motion, and everything that a perfectly-fit body enables him (and other world-class athletes) to do.
Anyone can note these details, all part of the story of Grigor Dimitrov’s win over Federer in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. Anyone can point them out and say that they mattered.
Are they right in an objective sense? People will disagree on that point. I won’t weigh in on that specific question. Injuries, as we know, elicit various contrasting opinions and fierce disagreements.
What REALLY matters is this:
Those details might matter in how a journalist or commentator evaluates the match — more precisely, how a person evaluates a competition between two athletes and their two perspectives — but they don’t matter at all to Grigor Dimitrov.
Moreover, they shouldn’t.
“But Federer was hurt. But Federer was stiff. But Federer, but Federer…”
But this, but that, but what about that other thing?
All irrelevant. All background noise… as far as Dimitrov is concerned.
Here is the simple explanation:
If you were to think of five ATP players over the past five years who were really consistent at making the worst out of good situations, Grigor Dimitrov would probably be on that list. There has never been a favorable situation Dimitrov could not turn into a crushing defeat.
Dimitrov has allowed the weight of situations to lean heavily on his shoulders. He would fight hard, he would try hard, but he would fall just short of where he wanted to be.
Fabio Fognini is too set in his ways. Stan Wawrinka can be an exasperating player to watch, but his three majors and his wins over Novak Djokovic at major tournaments give him a Hall of Fame glow which mutes criticism of him.
Philipp Kohlschreiber, like Dimitrov, is so utterly capable of hitting every kind of shot and manipulating every speed or spin of the ball, but he is older and has failed to reach Dimitrov’s heights. Hence, his failures don’t elicit the same powerful reactions from fans.
Nicolas Almagro was far more combative and antagonistic than Dimitrov has ever been.
Juan Martin del Potro has won a major title, despite all his horrendous injury luck.
Of all the players on the ATP Tour fans feel deeply sorry for — richly empathetic and profoundly sad — when he fails, Grigor Dimitrov might elicit the most sympathy.
The tennis he has produced is undeniably beautiful when it is flowing. The heights he has attained — World No. 3, ATP Finals champion, multiple major semifinals — have offered fans legitimate reason to think he could be great. His personal responses to failures endear him to fans, because he has never become bitter about his journey. He is one of the most liked players on tour.
This empathy isn’t hard to figure out. It is earned by a genuine person who has long known what stands in his way, and has tried to reduce the burden of that knowledge, often with little success.
You will pardon me, and you will pardon Grigor Dimitrov, for thinking that Federer’s discomfort really doesn’t matter.
Grigor Dimitrov, in front of over 23,000 fans in a major quarterfinal, after many months of failure and struggle, was brilliant in the handful of moments he absolutely had to be great. Grigor Dimitrov, who has so often become smaller in the biggest spotlights, grew strong and tall against a legend of the game.
Does it matter that Federer was suffering? In many ways, sure… but not to Dimitrov, whose main challenge has been to get out of his own way and tend to his own inner world.
Tuesday, he tended to his thoughts, fears, worries and demons as well as he ever has, in a moment of considerable consequence.
Given everything he has been through, that achievement stands on its own.
The outside details simply don’t matter when Grigor Dimitrov has so often sat on the other side of this particular fence.