Continuing our Season In Review series, ATPWorldTour.com revisits the fiercest rivalries of 2017. Today we feature Rafael Nadal vs. Grigor Dimitrov.
They are two of the most exciting players to watch on the ATP World Tour. No one fights harder and for longer than Rafael Nadal, who always engages the crowd with his patented “¡Vamos!” shouts and left-handed upper cuts. It's as if Nadal, the master of the mental game, is seeking a body blow to his opponent when he delivers the fan-favourite celebration.
But few players leave you in awe when they're in the zone as Grigor Dimitrov does. The Bulgarian's one-handed backhand will have you writing “Did you see that?” texts to friends, and his do-everything game gives him the chance to compete for “Big Titles”, as he first did in 2014, reaching the Wimbledon semi-finals and beating defending champion Andy Murray along the way.
But when Nadal and Dimitrov faced off in the first of their three 2017 FedEx ATP Head2Head matchups, all of which went the distance, it was a surprise meeting of sorts, considering the stage – the Australian Open semi-finals – and what both had been through during the past year.
Just three months before the season's first Grand Slam tournament, Nadal couldn't even comfortably rally on court. In what seems unbelievable now, in mid-October 2016, when Roger Federer helped the Spaniard open his academy in Mallorca, Spain, neither was in good enough shape to play. Nadal was still recovering from his left wrist injury, and Federer was still recuperating from knee surgery that had made him end his season after Wimbledon.
Dimitrov, meanwhile, had also endured a frustrating 2016. His Emirates ATP Ranking had dropped to No. 40 in July, his lowest spot in more than three years, and he had fallen in all three of his title matches.
Yet here they both were, in the semi-finals of the first Grand Slam tournament of the year, reigniting their careers to kick off 2017. Nadal had prevailed in five sets against German Alexander Zverev, and rolled into the semi-finals by beating sixth seed Gael Monfils and third seed Milos Raonic. His wrist injury seemed well in the past.
Watch Dimitrov's Intense Off-Season Training In Monte-Carlo:
Dimitrov, after a productive off-season in Monte-Carlo, had started 10-0, including three Top 10 wins (Thiem, Raonic, Nishikori) en route to the Brisbane International presented by Suncorp title. The Bulgarian had another reason to be confident in his second Grand Slam semi-final: He had gained his first win against Nadal the last time they had played, in October during the China Open quarter-finals.
“I feel like I have all the tools to go further, and my job isn't over yet,” Dimitrov said before facing Nadal. “I'm looking forward to my match on Friday. I think I'm prepared. I think I'm ready to go the distance.”
Nadal started quicker in their semi-final, though, taking the opener in only 35 minutes with a steady supply of looping crosscourt forehands to Dimitrov's one-handed backhand. The tactic that had helped Nadal for years against Federer was also working against Dimitrov.
But the Bulgarian, who had struggled with consistency in big matches in the past, stayed in the semi-final, encouraging himself with frequent “Come ons” and fist pumps. He smacked a forehand to lead 4-1 in the second set and later evened the match.
Nadal's backhand, not his forehand, helped him clinch the 70-minute third set, as he crushed back-to-back shots from that wing on set point. It looked as if he would take over and wrap up the semi-final in four sets. But Dimitrov refused to fade, staying aggressive, attacking the net and matching Nadal's level.
Midway through the fifth set, however, Nadal snapped a run of 26 consecutive holds and later served out the match. He overcame a staggering 79 winners, including 22 aces, from Dimitrov, who, according to John McEnroe, played the “match of his life”.
Read & Watch: Nadal Edges Dimitrov In A Thriller
Nadal would fall to Federer in the final, the Spaniard's first Grand Slam title match since 2014 Roland Garros. But it was the start of another banner year for Nadal in Grand Slams. He would go on to win a record 10th Roland Garros crown and his third US Open title.
Read & Watch: Federer Tops Nadal In Epic To Win 18th Grand Slam Title
“I feel very happy to be part of this match,” Nadal said after the Melbourne semi-final. “There was a moment in the fifth set that for sure I wanted to win. I said to myself, 'I am giving my best, I am playing very well. If I lose, that's it. Grigor deserves it, too.' I think both of us deserved to be in that final.”
The two wouldn't meet again until the final stretch of the season, and the circumstances had drastically changed since Melbourne. At the China Open in Beijing, top-seeded Nadal was closing in on his first year-end No. 1 finish in the Emirates ATP Rankings since 2013. Dimitrov had cracked the Top 10 for the first time since February 2015 and was looking to secure his debut at the season-ending Nitto ATP Finals in London.
A year ago, Dimitrov had upset Nadal in the Chinese capital, and the Spaniard was eager to earn revenge for that lone blemish on his FedEx ATP Head2Head series against the Bulgarian. He blitzed Dimitrov to start, leading by a set and a break. But Dimitrov, the 2016 finalist, broke twice in the second set and evened the match with a stunning backhand winner.
In the third, however, Dimitrov's level slightly dipped, and Nadal seized his moment, breaking three times to prevail 6-3, 4-6, 6-1. Nadal earned his 60th match win of the season and sprinted into the Beijing final, the 110th of his career. He would beat Nick Kyrgios in the final to celebrate his sixth title of the season.
He and Dimitrov wouldn't have to wait long for their third and final contest of the season. A week later, on the quick hard courts of the Shanghai Rolex Masters, they again met late in a tournament, this time in the quarter-finals of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament.
And it was another treat for fans as both players showed off their world-class athleticism and array of hot shots. Nadal took the first set but Dimitrov roared back, overcoming a 2/4 deficit in the second-set tie-break to force a third set. It marked the seventh time in their 11 FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings that they were going the distance. Nadal was again too good in the third set, though, and he served out the match with a service winner to advance 6-4, 6-7(4), 6-3.
The Spaniard would finish the season at year-end No. 1 for the fourth time (also 2008, 2010 and 2013). But Dimitrov would end the year on a career-high note as well. In his debut, the 26-year-old went unbeaten to win the Nitto ATP Finals, becoming the first debutant to capture the title since Spain's Alex Corretja in 1998. The last player to go undefeated and win the season-ending crown on debut was John McEnroe in 1978.
The title, Dimitrov's fourth of the year, pushed him to a career-high No. 3 in the Emirates ATP Rankings.
Should Dimitrov and Nadal meet once more in Melbourne, in January 2018, it could again be in a semi-final. But this time around, no one should be surprised.
View FedEx ATP Head2Head series (Nadal leads 10-1)
Nadal vs. Dimitrov: 2017 Meetings