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Dimitrov withstands Kyrgios barrage

  • Linda Pearce
  • Ben Solomon

Grigor Dimitrov has ended the run of the last local singles hope at Melbourne Park, even as Nick Kyrgios showed encouraging signs that the Australian Open title may be in Australian hands again on one Sunday not too far away.

If the quality of Dimitrov’s 7-6(3) 7-6(4) 4-6 7-6(4) victory in three hours and 27 minutes was exceptional, then the intense conversation at the net afterwards added an interesting post-script to a compelling night on Rod Laver Arena.

“I just told him to believe in himself,'' Kyrgios said. "I think he’s got the game. He’s proved to everyone that he can win one of these Slams, and hopefully he can go all the way.’’

Only one point overall (157-156) separated the third seed and the 17th, who share a mutual respect and affection. They are four years apart in age, and, numerically, Dimitrov was 12 months ago where Kyrgios is now. Yet progress can be rapid when one has the tools as well as the mentality to complement them.

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Dimitrov weathered a barrage of 36 aces among 76 Kyrgios winners, and did not succumb despite a failed attempt to serve out the match at 5-3 in the third set. He was stretched and extended in every way, before closing it out with a forehand crosscourt passing shot to avenge his loss at the Brisbane International two weeks ago, and advance to a quarterfinal against unseeded Briton Kyle Edmund.

“He was serving unbelievable, playing unbelievable, competing, and he pretty much deserves a lot of credit,’’ said Dimitrov of Kyrgios. “He fought really hard, and it’s one of those matches that you have to be locked in and try to get any opportunity you have.

“Even when I was serving for the match I just felt that it was still not over, I was still not finding my spots well, and again he was playing very well, but I’m just glad to go through that match.’’

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Last year, Dimitrov equalled his best Grand Slam result by reaching the semifinals at Melbourne Park, only to lose a five-set epic to Rafael Nadal. Kyrgios is a different prospect altogether, and while the 22-year-old may have shown signs of better controlling his volatile temperament, it’s still a bit like a dry paddock in bushfire season: capable of going off at any time.

The early fly in his sunscreen was an annoyance about the stringing tension in his racquets, which was supposedly the fault of his entourage. By the time a racquet arrived back from the stringer, he was already down a break in the second set, the frustration and irritability growing, and the match feeling slightly tinder-like, with Kyrgios threatening to ignite.

But, these days, on-edge does not mean necessarily tipping over it, and, as the restrung racquet remained in its plastic cover, the Canberran stayed in the contest by saving a set point at 4-5. The tiebreak could not be salvaged, though, and Dimitrov has never been beaten after leading two-sets-to-love before.

Kyrgios, though, has twice recovered from two sets to love down. “I was mentally preparing for a fifth set. I could feel the momentum coming. I’ve done it before,'' he said.

“I thought I played well. I’ve just had a massive month. I was feeling a little tired at some stages of the match and the adrenalin kicked in. I’m pretty happy with my Aussie summer. I thought I played well. I thought I played well tonight.

“I still feel confident after losing that match. All eyes are on Davis Cup for me now in a couple of weeks.’’

Twice, including early in the third set, Kyrgios foot-faulted on his second ball from the first court, his back foot having strayed over the centre line. He argued the supposed impossibility of this infringement with umpire Carlos Ramos, but to no avail, then redirected his energies to a match that was threatening to slip away.

Indeed, in another sign of his growing maturity, Kyrgios did not melt down, but stepped up, breaking for 4-3 to edge ahead for the first time in any of the three sets played. He has recovered twice before from 0-2 in a Grand Slam match, the second en route to the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park in 2015. With that serve, and that extraordinary shot-making ability, there is always hope.

Increasingly, Kyrgios appeared to be relaxing into things, loosening up, and the risks were paying off; the free swinging, the reflex brilliance at the net, the attacking attitude on the return. Dimitrov was not retreating, but he was under siege.

A huge game was the fourth of the second set, with Kyrgios belting a huge second serve ace at 15-40 and weathering another four deuces before he closed it out with an ace. Several times, he ordered his players’ box – which included quasi-coach and doubles partner Matt Reid, and Davis Cup teammate Jordan Thompson, as captain Lleyton Hewitt was busy in the commentary box – onto their feet. There was no choice but to oblige.

Yet no-one had to be asked to applaud a quite remarkable scorched-earth forehand winner on the run that earned a rare break point at 2-2 in the fourth set. The fact that Kyrgios could laugh in near-disbelief himself was a sign ‘o the (changing) times, but Dimitrov remained resolute.

And Kyrgios admirable. The Hisense Arena specialist had won his first match on RLA just two nights earlier, and having been booed off court against Andreas Seppi, exited to a far warmer  reception. “It was obviously a massive experience for me,'' he said. "I feel a lot more comfortable on that court now.’’

And the standing ovation? “Jeez, I probably deserve it, I feel,'' he smiled. "I won a tournament in Brisbane, I gave my best efforts this week. And I came up short. I beat three quality opponents and I came up short against one of the best players in the world and I went down swinging.

"Obviously I feel a lot better this time around than last year. I didn’t really know what I was gonna do after the Australian Open last year. I feel like I’ve got more of a vision and more of a goal for this year, and I feel like I’m in a good headspace.

Dimitrov, too, is in a better place. 

The Bulgarian had conceded after his four-set defeat of Andrey Rublev in the previous round, which followed a five-set escape against US qualifier Mackenzie McDonald, that his game is not working as he would like it to, despite others expecting he would carry the momentum from his ATP Finals success in November into 2018.

This was a far superior performance, as Dimitrov knew it would have to be. The second serve responsible for 15 double-faults in his previous round held up admirably, and the backhand was also far more solid than previously.

Despite easily his best year on tour overall, Dimitrov failed to match his Australian Open result at the other majors last year – he made the fourth round at Wimbledon, third at the French and second at the US. Nor did Kyrgios excel at the majors, winning two matches and losing four. Still, this time, and having sacrificed his second-round doubles commitments with Reid in pursuit of a bigger prize, Kyrgios will have to content himself with an honourable fourth-round defeat.

Viktor Troicki was tricky. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a hero deserving of one’s best behaviour, not least in front of acting idol Will Smith. Dimitrov is a friend, and, in some ways, also an example, his work ethic not just exceptional, but evidence that one can still be charismatic and exciting but committed, as well.

Kyrgios is learning that, but there is time, and there also seems to be improvement. John McEnroe said this was the best fight he'd seen from Kyrgios, and few would disagree. Kyrgios did not. “Can't argue with that.’’ No. Don't.