In the second match on Centre Court, seventh seed Grigor Dimitrov takes on American number two John Isner for a place in the final. Dimitrov is a popular player wherever he goes, whilst Isner should enjoy the backing of the home crowd. Both men have also been playing fine tennis to reach the semi-finals. Neither of them have dropped a set in the competition but something will have to give when they meet. Who will reach the final?
They have met just once so far in their careers. That match came in 2015 at the Masters event in Miami in the round of 32. It proved to be a fairly comfortable win for Isner. Although the first set was a tight affair, going to a tie break, from there the American was in control. He won that tie break 7-2 and broke early in the second set to take a firm grip of the match. He broke the Bulgarian again to practically seal the victory. Isner would go onto the reach the semi-finals in that tournament.
The American also has the advantage in experience at this level. He has been a consistent performer over his career on the tour even if he has struggled to translate that into success at the Majors. Many of his finest career moments have come at the Masters events. He is competing in his eighth Masters 1000 semi-final, of which he has won three of the previous seven. Those three victories include a win in the Cincinnati semifinals in 2013, though he would lose a tight final to Rafael Nadal. Dimitrov, in contrast, has reached three Masters semi-finals previously but has lost them all. He has picked up just one set in the three matches, something he will hope to improve on against Isner.
Path to the semi-finals
Dimitrov enjoyed a bye into the second round. There he met with Feliciano Lopez. The first set was tight, but Dimitrov pulled out the victory in the tie break. One break was enough to settle the match in the second set as Dimitrov won it 7-6 6-4. He moved on to face 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro. Dimitrov dominated the early running, taking the first set 6-3 and facing only one break point. But Del Potro fought back in the second, breaking Dimitrov in the Bulgarian’s first service game of the set. The Argentine began to wilt, however, as the temperature rose. He was broken back, and despite forcing three set points on Dimitrov’s serve couldn’t capitalise. At 6-5, struggling with heat exhaustion, a doctor was called, but Del Potro played on. Unsurprisingly, he was broken in the next game to lose the match.
In the quarter-finals, Dimitrov put in a completely dominant performance against Japan’s Yuichi Sugita. Sugita, the world number 48, had done terrifically to reach the semi-finals. But he was outclassed from start to finish against Dimitrov. The Bulgarian dropped just three games as he raced to a 6-2 6-1 win against an opponent who looked completely overawed by the occasion.
Isner, seeded 14th, began in the first round against Victor Troicki. Troicki played well in the first set, pushing Isner to a tie break. But his game deserted him thereafter. He surrendered the tie break limply and was broken by Isner in the second set. The American wrapped it up 6-4 to advance to play wildcard Tommy Paul. Paul has enjoyed a fine summer on the American hard courts, holding match points against Kei Nishikori in the Washington quarter-finals. But against Isner, he was outmatched. Isner dispatched him quickly for a 6-3 6-3 to move into the third round.
Isner faced off against another young American, Alexander Zverev’s conqueror Frances Tiafoe. Tiafoe was superb in defeating the German world number seven but could not bring the same quality to the fore against Isner. The match was close but Isner looked comfortable enough as he won 7-6 7-5. He faced off against a countryman for the third time consecutively when he met Jared Donaldson in the quarter-finals. It was Donaldson’s first Masters quarter-final, but he put in a fine effort, though like Tiafoe, never looked like winning. Isner won again 7-6 7-5 to march on into the last four.
How do they match up?
The key strength in Isner’s game is rather obviously his serve, but it’s not just his height that makes it so effective. His technique is almost perfect, something he rarely gets enough credit for. His ball toss particularly is unquestionably the best on tour. These reliable mechanics allow Isner to serve big when it matters most as the pressure rarely gets to his serve. His forehand is also a huge shot when he is able to attack it. His movement is a weakness and his backhand can be shaky, but his game is built around first strike tennis. Dimitrov, in contrast, is one of the finest all court players in the game. There are few weaknesses in his game though he can lose the rhythm on his backhand. But there is also no defining strength, making this an intriguing battle.
Dimitrov will have to play his most aggressive tennis. The Bulgarian can, at times, be too passive, relying on excellent court coverage to win points. But it is one thing to reach the ball, another to do something meaningful with it. This is what separates Dimitrov from the great defenders on tour. Against Isner, his defence will not win him the match. But if he can hit hard to the corners against the big man, his offence might just.
Dimitrov has been in superb form, and for that reason, should just squeak through this one. That being said, an Isner win would be no surprise. Dimitrov has the skill to pick a few returns at crucial times and is serving well enough that holding should not be too much of a problem. Tie breaks are almost inevitable when Isner steps onto the court and so expect at least one. Dimitrov to make his first Masters final in three.
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