Rafael Nadal, Spain’s world #1 and the top seed in China takes on the flashy Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov, at his career high ranking of world #8 has found a way to add steel to his unquestionable artistry so far this year. Nadal, meanwhile, is coming off winning his 16th Major at the US Open and will be looking to further cement his place atop the rankings with a title run in Beijing. But which man will triumph in the Chinese capital?
Nadal and Dimitrov have met nine times throughout their careers. The numbers don’t make great reading for the Bulgarian, he has lost eight of those nine meetings. That included the first seven, which began with a three-set defeat in Rotterdam in 2009. Dimitrov, who was then still a teenager, performed admirably in that match and gave a good account of himself in the pair’s next meeting in Monte Carlo. In fact, the Bulgarian has won at least one set in six of his eight defeats. That may well give him some comfort going into the match. Also in his favour is the fact that his one victory against Nadal came in Beijing last year in the quarterfinals. That being said Nadal in 2017 is a very different proposition to the Nadal of 2016. He showed Dimitrov as much in their superb five-set battle at the Australian Open, which Nadal won.
Path to the semifinals
Nadal began his China Open campaign with an extremely hard fought victory over Lucas Pouille. In fact, the Spaniard had to save two match points in a second set tiebreak. He did so, reeling off four straight points to level the match. Pouille continued to push Nadal in the decider, forcing a break point, but ultimately his failure to make his opportunities count cost him. Nadal broke Pouille at 5-5 and made no mistake in serving it out. He next came up against the big hitting Russian Karen Khachanov. Khachanov came out swinging, but Nadal played some superb tennis to weather the storm and broke crucially in the fourth game of the match. He held onto the advantage and sealed the first set 6-3. Another break early in the second set seemed terminal for the Russian, and Nadal broke him again at 5-3 to take the match.
Nadal then faced the giant John Isner. It was Isner who made the faster start and the American threatened a break early on, but Nadal held firm. Then, in typical Nadal fashion, he stepped up his intensity at the crucial moment, breaking Isner at 4-4 and served it out comfortably. In the second set Nadal couldn’t find another break and was taken to a tiebreak. But a superb lob to win the first point set the tone, and Isner couldn’t live with Nadal. The Spaniard won it 7-0 to move into the semifinals.
Dimitrov opened against the in-form Damir Dzumhur. The Bosnian recently won his first title in St Petersburg and made it to the Shenzhen semifinals, upsetting Alexander Zverev en route. Unsurprisingly then, he made Dimitrov work, but ultimately the Bulgarian had too much quality, and he won through in three-sets 6-1 3-6 6-3. He backed that win up with a straight sets triumph over Juan Martin del Potro. He was again made to work hard, coming back from a break down in both sets, but ultimately deserved his 7-6 7-5 victory. In the quarterfinals Dimitrov overcame the Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, the fifth seed in Beijing. After splitting the first two sets Dimitrov was comfortable in the decider and completed a 7-6 4-6 6-2 victory.
How do they match up?
Nadal’s forehand is a weapon that few on Tour can match or live with. He used it to great effect against Isner in their quarterfinal, with him repeatedly finding it down the line to expose the American’s movement. Against Dimitrov one suspects a different tactic ought to be applied by the Spaniard. Whilst the world #8 is a terrific mover, with flexibility that almost rivals Djokovic’s, his backhand is a weakness that can be exploited. All the more so by Nadal, who has had great success hitting high looping forehands into his opponents backhands. Considering how Dimitrov has struggled to deal with high backhands over the course of his career it is hard to imagine Nadal not employing that tactic.
Dimitrov will have to work hard to counter it by maintaining a high first serve percentage and dominating with his forehand. One area Dimitrov excels in is dealing with pace into his forehand, which Nadal incidentally struggles with. If Dimitrov can regularly attack into the Nadal forehand with pace he will be rewarded with Nadal errors.
Dimitrov will push Nadal hard in this match, just as he usually does, but fall short, just as he usually does. Ultimately, the Bulgarian’s backhand is too easily broken down by the Nadal forehand. Moreover, unless Dimitrov has an excellent serving day, Nadal will likely be able to exploit his second serve. Nadal to win in three sets.
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