By Matt Zemek
Tennis has been fine in China this week… and Rafael Nadal hasn’t been breakable, at least not yet.
Grigor Dimitrov came close to breaking Nadal’s serve for the first time this week in China. He came close breaking Nadal’s autumnal run, close to breaking Rafa’s momentum in pursuit of the year-end No. 1 ranking.
Close, yes, but still so far away.
What happened in the Shanghai Masters quarterfinals was hardly a new occurrence — not this year, not this month — in the Nadal-Dimitrov series. It recalled the latter stages of the Australian Open semifinal which started slowly, but became a compelling contest in time.
This three-set match didn’t require preliminary warm-up sets in which either player worked out kinks. This was showtime stuff from the moment Rafa and Grigor took the court, enhanced by the mutual respect the players conveyed to each other during the battle. Nadal clapped his racquet after great Dimitrov shots, such as a pickup volley in the first set or after a running crosscourt forehand early in the third. Their handshake at net was not a blow-by bereft of eye contact. The two men looked each other in the face, vigorously shook hands, and paused to make sure they mutually appreciated the artistry they had just produced, late in the tennis season, when so many other players (those not injured in a 2017 for the medical history books) are worn down.
Nadal-Dimitrov — yet again in 2017, and for the second time in two weeks — went to a final and deciding set. Yet again, Dimitrov unfurled the full measure of his capabilities. Yet again, Nadal — champion that he is from head to toe — absorbed the excellence from the other side of the net and stood taller at the end.
It is not a new story, but new stories — as Nadal and Roger Federer could tell you — don’t necessarily define the best ones.
The golden oldies — the feel-good hits improbably summoned after periods of struggle and uncertainty — can be the most rousing tales of all.
The grand lesson of this cracking quarterfinal collision flows from Nadal’s signature resilience… but it applies to Dimitrov, the gallant but vanquished challenger.
Nadal’s ability to answer the bell time and again needs no embellishment. His capacity to watch Dimitrov play a series of ridiculous points to earn a break chance at 2-2 in the third set, only to calmly swat away that break point with a strong second serve to the body, needs no grand essay. His successful response to a blown 3-0 second-set tiebreak lead (recall his 3-0 tiebreak lead which was lost to Denis Shapovalov in Montreal) was not automatic, but nevertheless hugely impressive.
Nadal plainly showed, once again, how rock-solid he is in the tennis player’s most important organ: his mind.
Dimitrov gained one more lesson on how to be a champion. This match is yet one more instance in which he has been shown the path to elusive fulfillment on tour.
There is no physical or tactical reason — nothing connected to fitness or stamina or technique — why Dimitrov can’t play this way on a consistent basis. Whereas Dominic Thiem owns large technical and tactical flaws on hardcourts, Dimitrov is a fully-formed player in those realms. All that remains for him is to concentrate… which is conceptually simple, but unavoidably the main obstacle separating him from being the kind of player who is almost ALWAYS, not merely occasionally, a quarterfinalist or semifinalist at the 13 most significant tournaments each year, the four majors and nine Masters 1000s.
No, Dimitrov shouldn’t have seven or eight major titles by now — let’s not be hyperbolic — but he has left so much on the table. At 26, his biological tennis clock is ticking, but he certainly has several productive years in which to rewrite his tennis story. Marin Cilic — who will face Nadal in the first Shanghai semifinal on Friday — is not an every-tournament beast the way Nadal and other members of the Big Four have been at various points in their careers, but the Croatian has managed to pick his spots and find opportunities to occasionally do more than all his non-Big Four (and non-Wawrinka) peers.
That is the starting point for Dimitrov: To make quarterfinals his floor, and Cilic his ceiling. Maybe he can go deeper in 2018, but let’s start there and see what else can develop.
Matches like this one against Nadal show how inexcusable it is — and was — for Dimitrov to lose in the second round of the U.S. Open or in the first match at Miami, and to go through two-month periods in which nothing works.
Grigor Dimitrov shouldn’t be expected to exceed or even match a player as great as Rafael Nadal — the icons are icons for a reason.
As long as Dimitrov uses this match — and heck, this year of close losses to Nadal — as a transformative turning point in his career, he could reach the Cilic standard, and maybe go slightly higher.
His story could be rewritten in ways the tennis community will richly admire.
That possibility remains, but now is his time to get out a new sheet of paper and a fresh supply of ink. His racquet, but more centrally his mind, must own more clarity than ever before.