ATP Finals 2017 diary: Grigor Dimitrov stands tall, but without quite dwarfing David Goffin
Sport is cruel. It take and takes and takes from you, but only gives something back in return if you're among the 'chosen ones'. You can spend hours on the court, sweating buckets and dodging bullets, but at the end of the day you can be deprived of the trophy just by one miscalculated swing of the racquet.
Tonight in London, two men had the chance to finally get a big reward for their life-long efforts. Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin had spent nearly half a decade in the middle tier, toiling away in the shadows while waiting for that big breakthrough to come their way. But as luck would have it, only one of them could finally get there - at the expense of the other.
For the better part of the match, it looked like Goffin wanted it just that little bit more. He made all the daring plays, taking the rallies by the scruff of the neck and knocking off winners like it was child's play. The 6-0, 6-2 drubbing he had suffered at the hands of this same opponent three days ago seemed like a distant memory.
Dimitrov, on his part, seemed content to sit back and wait for things to happen. Whether it was the natural human tendency to be cautious on the big stage, or a predetermined strategy, or just plain old nerves, he seemed unwilling to display his full range of shots. Predictably, he went down an early break, and then another one after recovering the first, to trail 2-4 in the first set.
But maybe the Bulgarian was on to something. Just when it seemed like Goffin would replicate his earth-shattering performance from yesterday, he started to miss. Dimitrov took full advantage - of both Goffin's errors and the fact that he was serving behind - to pocket a close opening frame.
That early initiative seemed to convince Dimitrov - or 'Grisha', as the partisan crowd was calling him - that the wait-and-watch approach was the way to go. He continued looping the ball off his forehand and slicing off his backhand, daring his opponent to go on the attack. And if you've been following Goffin's career, you'd know that the role of the aggressor is not something that he's comfortable in.
That was before this week though. Now, he seems just as confident taking the ball on as he is in redirecting powerful strikes from beyond the tramlines.
The Dimitrov slice worked well in patches, especially the low one that forced Goffin to lurch forward. But the Belgian eventually got wise to that too, and started anticipating a short reply every time he hit to Dimitrov's backhand.
He pounded the Dimitrov backhand over and over again, and finished with winners whenever he got an opening. Goffin is slighter in stature and doesn't seem to have as much pop on his serves or groundstrokes as Dimitrov does, but he was the one doing all the bullying in the rallies.
When Goffin manufactured a couple of break points at the start of the third set, it looked like Dimitrov was about to pay the ultimate price for being too conservative. But he escaped out of that hole, which turned out to be the moment of inspiration he was looking for.
After the match I asked Dimitrov whether it was a deliberate strategy to play conservatively, or if it was Goffin's all-out attack that forced him on the backfoot. His reply suggested that it was a combination of both; he played defensively in part because he was tired from all the long matches he's played this week, and in part because he knew Goffin had to try 'something new' to win today.
"I was a little bit tired as well. I had to play a few matches back-to-back against solid opponents...I knew that David is going to try something new. He had to be aggressive so he doesn't let me play my game. That was very obvious from the first point."
That 'something new' was, as Roger Federer said yesterday, just playing better. And until 2-3 in the third, Goffin was playing better - not just better than his opponent, but also better than he's ever played.
Little did we know that the final, most cruel twist of fate would strike in that sixth game. And that was when Goffin, as amazing as he's been this tournament, finally ran out of answers.
When he was serving at 30-0, there was a loud and clearly distracting whistle from the crowd that started after the Belgian was into his service motion. He missed the first serve by quite a margin, and looked angrily at the umpire, almost as if he was demanding an explanation for foul play.
He then proceeded to hit two consecutive let serves, and a sense of foreboding crept into everyone watching. You knew that something was about to give; something wasn't quite right with what was happening.
As expected, the third attempt at a second serve ended up as a double fault - and the objective ones among the crowd groaned in frustration. What seemed like an impregnable position just seconds ago had suddenly turned into a precarious sea of nerves. Goffin would lose the next two points through errors, and eventually get broken to hand Dimitrov the decisive advantage.
Two games later Goffin again engaged the crowd, but with an entirely different purpose. He went down three match points while serving at 3-5, but saved them all with some brilliant, no-holds-barred play. He then turned to the crowd and asked them to make some noise, and the response was deafening.
Except that the chants of 'Gri-sha! Gri-sha!' were still the most audible syllables amid the din.
During the presentation ceremony, all eyes were on Dimitrov as he basked in the glory of the gigantic trophy he had just been given. But I turned to look at Goffin, who cut a forlorn figure as he walked off the court slowly, lost in the shadows. It's got to be a terrible feeling for any player to be making that walk, but I wondered whether the hurt was even greater in Goffin's case today.
The first question that Goffin was asked in his post-match press conference was whether the crowd disturbance played a part in the result. The Belgian was the consummate professional, refusing to blame the crowd for what was evidently a major factor in his loss.
"Yeah, it was a tough game. I was a little bit tired in the third. But yeah, it's the only game maybe I didn't serve well; I didn't put a lot of first serves in that game. He took the advantage because, yeah, I served a lot of second serves. He was really solid," Goffin said.
Later he even went on to talk about how great the atmosphere for the match was. "Yeah, there were a lot of Bulgarians tonight. But anyway, even if there were a little bit more behind Grigor, it was a great atmosphere."
But he couldn't hide the look of pain in his eyes as he rattled off the diplomatic answers.
Dimitrov has always been the bigger star among the two 26-year-olds, and his stock will undeniably rise even higher with this triumph. But to me, this week belonged to Goffin.
Right from his first match, where he overcame a frightening bout of choked nerves to send Rafael Nadal out of the tournament; to his magnificent peak against Roger Federer, where he outhit one of the greatest offensive players in history; and ending with his final act of ultimate sportsmanship, where he lost a bitter match but still found the heart to cross over to the other side of the net and hug a weeping Dimitrov, Goffin stood taller than he ever has in his career.
Dimitrov deserves his place in the sun; he's worked extremely hard to get here. But let's not forget the part that David Goffin played; he was a true hero, even if he has no trophy to show for it.