Roger Federer produced something of a tennis-serving masterclass in dispatching world No.35 Alexandr Dolgopolov in straight sets at the Australian Open this morning. He rained down 25 aces and won an astonishing 88 percent of his first-service points (43 of 49) in order to progress 6-3, 7-5, 6-1.
But as third seed, Federer could scarcely have drawn a tougher round-three opponent than Grigor Dimitrov.
The Bulgarian was not at his best in defeating Argentinian qualifier, Marco Trungellitiin, in four sets on Court Six today, and his seeding of 27 is reflective of the fact that he endured a poor 2015. However, Dimitrov ranked inside the world’s top-10 as recently as February last year, and he has proven that, on his day, he possesses the shot variety and athleticism to beat almost any player in the world.
Since finishing as a runner-up to Andy Murray in the Brisbane International in January, 2013, Dimitrov has featured in six ATP Tour-level singles finals, winning four, and notably overcame Feliciano López in the final at Queen’s Club in 2014.
He has recorded 10 separate victories against players ranked inside the world’s top-10 since 2012 (including Novak Djokovic, Murray [twice], and Stan Wawrinka [three times]) and went as far as the quarter-final of the Australian Open and the semi-final of Wimbledon in 2014, reaching a career-high ranking of world number eight that August.
The 24-year-old, who won both the Wimbledon and US Open Juniors titles in 2008, is thus clearly a player of enormous potential, and while one could have perhaps accused him of losing focus after the heights of 2014 (the publicity surrounding his high-profile and ill-fated relationship with WTA star Maria Sharapova did his tennis little good), the manner in which Dimitrov warmed-up for the Australian Open by reaching the final of the ATP Sydney last weekend suggests that he has gotten his head firmly back in the game.
This is an ominous sign for Federer.
For although Federer comes into this match as a justified favourite having taken his head-to-head record against Dimitrov to 4-0 at the ATP Brisbane two weeks ago, it is tough not to feel as though odds of 1/9 on the veteran progressing are short.
After all, Dimitrov took a set off of Federer for the first time in Brisbane and only won 15 points fewer than the world number three through the course of the match (101-86). Furthermore, Federer was beaten by a far weaker player than Dimitrov in the form of world number 29, Andreas Seppi, in the third-round of the Australian Open last year and, even in poor form, the Bulgarian went as far as the last-16 at Melbourne Park and won 33 of the 55 matches that he played through the course of the 2015 season.
In this light, it seems clear that Dimitrov poses a real threat to Federer on Saturday and the Swiss will need to be at his best in order to ensure his progression into the last-16. The Bulgarian looks fitter and more focused at the start of the 2016 season than he has at any point over the previous 12 months and Federer himself told TENNIS.com that Dimitrov is well placed to regain a top-10 ranking before the year is out.
“I hope he [Dimitrov] does come back, because I think he’s an exciting player to watch,” the 17-time Grand Slam champion said.
“I think his confidence dropped quite a bit last year, and then I think he was also trying to switch racquets. I think all of that, combined together with the pressure, and then rolling into Wimbledon was a bit too much. Expect him to be in a better state of mind this year, so I think it’s going to come very close to top-10 this year.”
The dynamic, all-court nature of Dimitrov’s playing-style saw him dubbed “Baby Fed” early in his professional career owing to the manner in which his game resembled that of the Swiss legend.
Dimitrov has yet to make an impact at Grand Slam level befitting of that title, but the positive manner in which he has started 2016 suggests that he could push Federer all the way at the Australian Open this weekend.
[Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images]