Roger Federer has already completed what was probably his main objective coming into this week. On Monday when the new rankings are released he will once again sit atop the mountain as he returns to #1 for the first time since 2012. But he would also no doubt like to crown that success with a 97th career title. Standing in his way is the man who is has spent much of his career trying to escape comparisons with Federer, Dimitrov. But who will come out on top?
The pair have met six-times in a rivalry Federer has more than had the better of. Their first meeting came in 2013 in Basel, and was hugely anticipated across the tennis world. It proved to be something of a disappointment as Federer comfortably defeated the younger man 6-3 7-6. He backed that up with another win in Basel a year later, again winning in straight sets. Federer then brushed Dimitrov aside in Brisbane for the loss of only four games at the start of 2015.
The Bulgarian won his first set against the great man in a hard-fought contest, again in Brisbane, in 2016 but ultimately fell 6-4 6-7 6-4. When they meet just weeks later at the Australian Open in the third round Dimitrov again won a set but couldn’t stop the Federer march as he lost 4-6 6-3 1-6 4-6. Their most recent meeting came last year at Wimbledon in the fourth round. Dimitrov put in one of his worst performances of the year and Federer swept him aside in straight sets without breaking a sweat. The Bulgarian will be hoping for a big improvement on that.
Path to the final
Federer began his Rotterdam campaign against Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium. The Belgian was outclassed from start to finish as Federer put in one of his best performances, hitting more winners than his opponent won points in a match that lasted just 47 minutes. He backed that win up with a tight two-set win against Philipp Kohlschreiber. Federer came into the match with a 12-0 head-to-head to advantage but the German impressed and was unlucky to lose in straight sets.
That left Federer only needing one more match win to claim the #1 ranking. His opponent was Robin Haase, the Dutch #1 and a frequent practice partner for Federer. It was Haase who made the better start, taking advantage of some uncharacteristic Federer errors to take the first set. But Haase had been struggling all week with a back injury and it caught up to him in the second and third sets. He won just two more games as Federer returned to the pinnacle of the sport.
The Swiss brought another commanding head-to-head record into his semifinal where he faced Italian veteran Andreas Seppi. Seppi has one career win against Federer, shocking him in 2015 at the Australian Open but had also taken 13 defeats from Federer. It was to be defeat number 14 for him in Rotterdam as Federer put in a performance that whilst not amongst his best was more than good enough and saw him through in straight sets.
Grigor Dimitrov opened against Yuichi Sugita of Japan. Sugita once came to within two points and an extraordinary lob of defeating Dimitrov, in a match that the Bulgarian credits for spurring his turn around during a dismal period of form that saw him fall outside the top 40. Now back inside the top 10 he had enough for the spirited Sugita, defeating him 6-4 7-6. He then accounted for last year’s Bercy finalist Filip Krajinovic in another hard fought straight sets affair, winning 7-6 7-5.
That set up a quarterfinal against Andrey Rublev, who stunned him at the US Open last year. Dimitrov got his revenge for that defeat at the Australian Open and again had too much for the young Russian in Rotterdam, winning 6-3 6-4 to reach the semifinals. David Goffin of Belgium awaited him there. The first set between the two was a close affair with one break enough to seal it in Dimitrov’s favour. Goffin was then forced to retire early in the second after a freak accident that saw a ball ricochet off his racket into his eye.
How do they match up?
There are few players on Tour as similar as Federer and Dimitrov. The comparisons were perhaps overstated during the years when Dimitrov could not escape the ‘Baby Fed’ tag but from stroke production to style of play similarities abound. However, Federer is a twenty-time Slam champion and Dimitrov has never been in a Major final and there are two key reasons for that. Firstly, Federer is a much better server than the man nearly a decade his junior.
The other reason is that Federer’s backhand is a more reliable shot than Dimitrov’s. Much has been made of Federer’s switch to a larger racquet face allowing him to hit that shot with more power and rightly so. But even before his racquet switch, the Swiss’ backhand was a better shot than the Bulgarian’s. Dimitrov’s backhand is liable to breakdown under pressure far quicker than Federer’s and his slice backhand is not as effective.
The key battle in the match will likely be on the forehand side though. Both men like to dictate with it and it is unquestionably their main offensive weapon. Bringing it into play early will be crucial in determining who walks away with the title in Rotterdam, particularly for Dimitrov whose offensive options are more limited. Dimitrov has also lost the first set every time he and Federer have played and one feels it will be important for him not to do the same again.
Dimitrov had a huge 2017 and seemed to finally come into his own as a top level player. And whilst, his tennis at the Australian Open may not have been that impressive, what was impressive was that made the quarterfinals anyway. He certainly continues to move in the right direction in overcoming his mental lapses. Unfortunately, the gulf between him and Federer still looks insurmountable.
Tennis feels like it did before the emergence of the rest of the Big Four and Wawrinka when Federer was in a class of his own. Even with Dimitrov playing with more confidence in his game, Federer has too much variety and quality for the world #5. Expect the Swiss star to win in three sets and lift title number 97.
Who do you think will lift the title in Rotterdam? Let us know in the comments below!