Rod Laver Arena was the scene of the greatest sliding doors moment in Grigor Dimitrov’s career to date. It was there, in front of a raucous Australian Open crowd, the Bulgarian came within just one set of his first Grand Slam final, losing a five-set thriller to Rafael Nadal.
Had Dimitrov got past the Spaniard, he would have faced the player he has been compared to from the moment he burst onto the scene as the sport's next big thing - Roger Federer. Instead, he was confronted with yet more proof of his unfulfilled potential.
Four years on, though, and Dimitrov has another chance of a breakthrough at the Australian Open. The 18th seed will take on Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev in Tuesday’s quarter-finals and having dismissed US Open champion Dominic Thiem in straight sets in the previous round he will be firm favourite.
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“Like all sort of the top players if you think about it, it takes time for everyone to get to somewhere, but the best part is that you treat every player the same way, and I will treat this match with no difference,” Dimitrov said when asked how he will approach his quarter-final tie.
A semi-final against either Novak Djokovic or Alexander Zverev would make Dimitrov an underdog, but with the former struggling through injury and the latter still battling a Grand Slam mental block the Bulgarian’s chances may appear better than is immediately apparent.
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While the post-match focus of Dimitrov’s stunning 6-4 6-4 6-0 demolition of Thiem was on the Austrian and his fitness levels, the Bulgarian also played something close to his best tennis. Indeed, Dimitrov struck 25 winners and made just 18 unforced errors in three sets against the number three seed.
The biggest improvement observed in Dimitrov’s game this past week or so has been in his returning. He has made a habit of hitting big on his forehand return, also mixing things up with some variety on his backhand. This is reflected in the fact Dimitrov won 60% of the points on Thiem’s second serve.
Of course, Dimitrov’s talent has been obvious for some time. At the peak of the ‘Big Four’ era he was the one widely identified as having the ability to make a breakthrough. A title at Queens and a run to the final four at Wimbledon in 2014 backed up the notion that it was only a matter of time until Dimitrov reached the pinnacle of the sport with a Grand Slam honour.
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Injury struggles and coaching troubles followed. Dimitrov’s confidence was shaken as questions over his mentality grew. The talent was still there. It was everything else that was the problem as Dimitrov’s form fluctuated match to match. Simply making the top 10 in the rankings became an achievement.
At 29, it’s now or never if the Bulgarian is to make the Grand Slam breakthrough so many expected him to make earlier in his career. The field is far from open at this year’s Australian Open, but nonetheless Dimitrov, who has spent less time on court than any other player left in the men’s singles, might never have a better chance to go the distance.
If Dimitrov makes it past Karatsev, as he should, and then Djokovic or Zverev in the semi finals, he will likely face Nadal, the player who denied him a place in the Australian Open final in 2017. A lot has happened in the time since then, including a global pandemic that has emptied the stands at Melbourne Park for the last four days, but one thing has remained a constant - Dimitrov’s unrealised potential.
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