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By Richard Pagliaro | Monday, November 13, 2017

Grigor Dimitrov

Grigor Dimitrov edged Dominic Thiem, 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, in a fierce and fitful World Tour Finals fight that featured three service breaks in the last six games.

Photo credit: Intrum Stockholm Open Facebook

LONDON—It was billed as a battle of brilliant one-handed backhands.

It escalated into a shot-making spectacle popping with tight-rope tension.

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Straddling aggression and apprehension, Grigor Dimitrov edged Dominic Thiem, 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, in a fierce and fitful World Tour Finals fight that featured three service breaks in the last six games.

The sixth-seeded Dimitrov served for the match at 5-4, was broken then broke right back before finally closing on his third match point.

"Whoever you play out here, you know it's going to come down to the wire," Dimitrov said. "It's simple as that. I feel like I played an okay match. For sure I thought I could have done a few things different or better. But I think from now on, it can get only better.

"Yeah, everything else, whatever comes across, as I said, it's on the upside for me. I'm just going to look forward to compete again."

It was the third meeting between the pair this season with all three matches going the three-set distance.

Thiem, who dropped to 2-7 in his last nine tournament matches, tried to draw the positives afterward. 

"I think (it was) way better performance than the last weeks, last tournaments, but still not perfect obviously," Thiem said. "Was normal first two sets, then the third set was little bit weird I think when I broke back for 5-All, then immediately got a shocking break for 5-6, then still had chances.

"I think it was pretty open until the end. I think there were some things just not good enough. I think he deserved to win."

Thiem took the court with a 24-24 career record indoors. It’s the only environment where the Austrian’s record isn’t above .500.

Two primary reasons: Thiem needs time to unleash his sweeping backswings and consequently has a habit of moving backward to return second serve.

Dimitrov’s transition skills and ability to close at net were key: He won 19 of 24 trips to net, including a tremendous running forehand down the line before scampering to the other side of the court for a drop shot winner.

The first Bulgarian to qualify for the elite eight in the tournament’s 48-year-history blocked a backhand return converting his third break point for a 4-2 lead.

Bending a 109 mph ace out wide brought the Bulgarian triple set point.

Thiem whacked a wild return beyond the baseline as Dimitrov snatched a one-set lead after 38 minutes while his supporters seated high up in the corner of the court serenaded him with a chant of “Dimitrov! Dimitrov!”

The two-time Roland Garros semifinalist betrayed his own cause serving just 37 percent in the opening set.

Adopting more aggressive court positioning, Dimitrov hit nine winners compared to five for his opponent in the opening set.

An hour into the match, Dimitrov’s serving accuracy was dipping and Thiem was making inroads pushing the Australian Open semifinalist to deuce in a couple of service games. Targeting the Bulgarian’s backhand, Thiem drew 10 errors from that wing in the second set.

Mixing slower slice with a booming diagonal forehand, Dimitrov drew the error to gain the first break point of the second set in the 11th game. Thiem unloaded a crackling forehand down the line to deny it. A heavy serve down the T sealed the toughest hold of the set for 6-5.

Feeling scoreboard pressure, Dimitrov rattled successive errors to face triple set point. The sixth seed scattered a forehand down the line wide as Thiem broke at love leveling the match after 88 minutes. 

Down double break point in the fifth game of the decider, Thiem caught a break with a net cord, closed net and blocked a volley to save the first. Dimitrov put a backhand into net as Thiem quieted the threat for 3-2.

Missing the sideline by a couple of inches with an inside-out forehand put Thiem in another break-point bind.

Swooping forward behind a backhand down the line, Dimitrov bent low ladling a backhand drop volley with such backspin you could read the label on the dipping ball. That bit of brilliance carved out the break and a 4-3 lead sending coach Dani Vallverdu leaping from his seat, pointing an index finger to his temple, Stan Wawrinka-style.

Dimitrov dug out of a love-30 deficit to back up the break.

Serving for the match, Dimitrov descended into distress. Thiem broke on an errant backhand for 5-all as Kiki Mladenovic screamed in support from the Austrian’s box.

The world No. 4 wasted that good work with a twitchy service game of his own at exactly the wrong time. Thiem doubled faulted to face triple break point then spit up a second straight double fault—his sixth of the match—to hand back the break and a 6-5 lead.

Nerves spiked again as Dimitrov double faulted on his first match point then missed a forehand down the line on the second match point. Thiem netted a forehand and nearly gnawed at his strings at a third match point.

Exhaling deeply, Dimitrov closed out his World Tour Finals debut as Thiem sailed a final shot beyond the baseline ending a two hour, 21 minute duel that popped with high drama and high strung moments.

Ultimately, resilience and a commitment to keep pushing forward helped Dimitrov pull through. He will need to summon both components in his upcoming round-robin matches against world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and David Goffin.

"I think overall your level has to be, even when you're not playing good, strong enough," Dimitrov said. "I think this is obviously one of the most important things. I always consider myself as that aggressive player. I always want to have that mindset.

"I think this is one of the most important things, not only to win this event, but any event."


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