It requires something special to steal the limelight from Rafael Nadal on a clay court, but Grigor Dimitrov managed to do that in the Rolex Masters despite losing a brilliant quarterfinal encounter, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4.
In the end, the Bulgarian’s chances of victory were ruined, not through a lack of skill but as a result of cramps in his thigh which struck at 4-4 in the third. Dimitrov turns 22 next month and that, in today’s incredibly physical game, is young. Being strong enough is all part of being able to compete at this elevated level and Dimitrov fell short in that regard.
Even if he had been able to continue to move with the fluency that had enabled him to contest numerous rallies of taxing length with his indefatigable opponent, there was no guarantee that he would have been able to dethrone the man who has not been beaten at the Monte Carlo Country Club since 2003.
Nadal does not buckle when the going gets tough and prides himself on that fact.
“I was playing against a very good player and I won 6-4 in the third having a tough match,” he said. “I know that when you have these tough matches it is decisive to keep fighting. These type of matches can change your year. I know that. I always did well (in these situations) and for that reason I was able to be very regular during my whole career, no?”
But, like most observers, Nadal is under no illusions as to just how dangerous Dimitrov will become in the near future.
“He’s a great player and has all the shots,” Nadal said. “He has everything to be a really, really good player. Always depends on how he stays mentally, how he’s able to keep working and improving.”
A packed stadium of 9,000 that included Prince Albert was given clear evidence of the Bulgarian’s talent as he whipped forehand cross-court winners past Nadal and also showed he could score up the line off his backhand. Interestingly for a player who had double-faulted four consecutive times when giving Novak Djokovic a run for his money at Miami last month, Dimitrov was rock solid on his serve in the third set, holding twice to love as the score moved on to 4-4, 30-all on the champion’s serve.
It was then that Nadal stepped it up and saw his opposition crumble.
“First of all, it was a tough loss,” Dimitrov said. “I must say, all credit to him. He’s an extraordinary player, an extraordinary fighter. Obviously I tried to maintain my game but it was not easy. He’s spinning the ball quite high up. I was trying to hang, actually. I thought I was playing good for a while.”
Dimitrov laughed off his physical problems but his little joke carried a ring of truth. “I was cramping at the end of the match. Last time I was cramping in the middle of the second set. That’s progress.”
Actually it is. And the progress would not be there without the arduous training stint Dimitrov underwent in Stockholm last December when he joined the academy run by three former Swedish players – Magnus Norman, Niklas Kulti and the man who now travels with Grigor, Michael Tillstroem. Early-morning runs through the snow apparently were not to his liking but the fact that he acknowledged the necessity of them enabled this engaging young man to take a major step forward.
Dimitrov has the looks, the flashing smile, a game many compare to Roger Federer and some kind of relationship, as yet undefined, with Maria Sharapova. It’s enough to be going on with and it explains why the men’s game is excited by the emergence of a potential superstar.
Nadal, seeking his ninth straight title here, will now play the big Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who proved too powerful for Stan Wawrinka, beating the Swiss who had downed Andy Murray in the previous round, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.
The other Frenchman in the last eight, Richard Gasquet, did not fare so well. Despite having a set point to go one set up, Gasquet ran out of steam against the skillful Italian, Fabio Fognini and lost 7-6 (7), 6-2.
Novak Djokovic will be Fognini’s semifinal opponent. The world No. 1 showed no signs of discomfort from his troublesome ankle and defeated the Finn, Jaarko Nieminen 6-4, 6-3.