LONDON, November 20, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
When Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin, both 26, took center stage in London’s O2 Arena to play the championship match of the 2017 Nitto ATP Finals on Sunday evening, it marked the third big men’s title match out of the last five that did not include at least one of the Big Four – Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
It didn’t matter – and I found it oddly refreshing and appealing.
This was the first time that two ATP Finals “debutants” met in the final of the year-end championship, and it may not be the last.
The uniquely talented Dimitrov, whom New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clearey labeled as “long a symbol of untapped potential,” beat Goffin 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. Thus, after completing a perfect 5-0 week, he became the first ATP Finals champion to hold the trophy in his first year as a qualifier since Alex Corretja in 1998. In the 47-year history of the year-end championships (dating back to 1970), it was also the first final in which neither player has reached a Grand Slam singles final.
Not only did Dimitrov win the biggest trophy of the year – and one he proudly hoisted high above his head for everyone to see – he will celebrate his victory with a rise to No. 3 in the world when the new Emirates ATP Rankings are released on Monday. Only Nadal and Federer are ranked higher.
“These two weeks have been one of the best weeks I’ve ever had, without a doubt,” said Dimitrov, during an on-court interview after his victory, while clutching the championship trophy. Indeed, in claiming the biggest title of his career, Dimitrov earned an impressive $2,549,000 in prize money and also collected an all-important 1,500 rankings points.
The last two players standing at the end of what proved to be a long and, for many of the top-ranked players, an injury-plagued season, Dimitrov and Goffin put on quite a show that went the distance and left everyone who watched – whether in person or glued to their TV sets or watching on their smartphones around the world – on the edge of their seats. From first serve to championship point, there was some pretty remarkable and entertaining shotmaking.
Dimitrov won the opening set 7-5 in 59 minutes after he trailed Goffin 1-3 in the early going. Although the Bulgarian saw four set points come and go, his fifth set point was the charm – and he earned it – when the Belgian slammed a forehand into the net, ending quite the cliffhanger of a game.
Then, overcoming a lack of consistency that left him yelling at himself, Goffin refocused his game and evened the match when he went on the attack in the seventh game of the middle set. He hit a short inside-out forehand winner for 15-40 and followed it with another forehand winner into the opposite corner, which allowed him to garner an all important break of Dimitrov’s serve. Later, Goffin held his own serve at love to win the set 6-4, which leveled the match and forced a deciding, winner-take-all set.
Heading into the final set of the ATP Finals, a graphic that appeared on the ESPN broadcast shown in the U.S. reminded viewers that Dimitrov was 13-12 in decisive set matches this season. Not bad, but not great because Goffin was even better. His 22-5 mark in decisive set matches was the best this season on the ATP World Tour. Impressive when one considers that Goffin’s perseverance paid off handsomely with wins over both Nadal and Federer earlier in the tournament. And, it brought to mind something Federer said after Goffin beat the Swiss maestro in the semifinals on Saturday. Asked if Goffin could win the title, Federer said: “Of course. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be in the finals. I hope he didn’t just beat me for fun and then to roll over in the finals.”
Certainly, Goffin didn’t roll over at all. Down 2-5, love-40 on his serve, Goffin held off three championship points in the eighth game of the final set and fought determinedly to prolong the match one more game against Dimitrov. “How about some love for me?” Goffin seemed to be conveying to the crowd, lifting his arms after holding serve for the last time.
Then, the inevitable happened. As the championship match reached the 2 hour and 30 minute mark, there was newfound resilience for Dimitrov, and he ended it when he won on his fifth match point opportunity. The champion collapsed to the ground and lay on his stomach fighting back tears. Then, he picked himself up and was met by the fallen Goffin, who just days earlier was crushed by Dimitrov 6-0, 6-2 in group play. The two shared a friendly and warm embrace. Next, Dimitrov sprinted toward his box and hop-scotched over an advertisement barrier to share multiple hugs, with his parents, his girlfriend, and his team. Finally, back at his court side seat, he leaned over and kissed the camera lens, writing “I love you!” on it.
Indeed, what a performance from both Dimitrov and Goffin – and, clearly, the crowd rewarded both of them with thunderous applause.
During the on-court trophy presentation that followed, Dimitrov reminded everybody of the tremendous honor it was to him to play in the ATP Finals. “These two weeks have been one of the best weeks I’ve ever had, without a doubt,” he said. “I want to congratulate David. He’s one of the most improved players. He gave an unbelievable effort. I wish him good luck in the Davis Cup.”
Then, not one to miss an opportunity to thank everyone who played a part is supporting him throughout the season, Dimitrov added: “I just want to thank my team. They’ve been unbelievable this year. Of course, my family – my mom and dad – they’re here. Also, one person I don’t know if she’s in the hall or not, this week, played a pretty important part was my girlfriend (and pop star) Nicole (Scherzinger). … She deserves also quite a bit of credit for these two weeks. It was just great to be out here and win this.”
A fatigued but no less appreciative Goffin, who will anchor Belgium’s Davis Cup team against France in next weekend’s World Group final, finished the year at No. 7 in the world rankings. After receiving his runner-up trophy, he addressed the O2 Arena crowd, saying: “It was a special week for me. A week with a lot of emotions, a lot of fatigue of course and now I’m feeling tired. But it was an amazing week, we did an amazing job.
“It was tough, after the match against Grigor in the group. It was not easy to come back on the court, but we worked a lot with the team. So, I’d like to thank all my team, and my friends also who came out tonight. Without their work, I won’t be there. So, thank you, everybody.”
As the lights are turned off inside O2 Arena one last time and the history of another ATP Finals is written, looking back, everyone’s a winner: Grigor Dimitrov claims the biggest title of his young career and David Goffin caps a career week after beating the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world. Indeed, it was oddly refreshing – and definitely appealing.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.