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Grigor Dimitrov has earned the right to be critiqued. Welcome to the world of expectations.
Dimitrov was hardly great in his opening matches, but by Friday the draw had opened up for him to win his first Masters tournament. Novak Djokovic was long gone, Andy Murray was packing for Cincinnati and Rafael Nadal was wearing a cast. There was every opportunity for him to go to the finals and face Roger Federer in what would have been must-see tennis.
If we take the glass is half full approach, we recognize Dimitrov's clutch efforts in defeating sturdy Kevin Anderson, who has quietly been playing the best tennis of his career in recent months. Dimitrov staved off match point and won a third-set tiebreaker. He's performed in the clutch well enough that it seems he indeed does have the stuff to be a great champion.
But Saturday's semifinal against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga exposed a big problem in his game, one that will need to be solved if he does rise to the next level.
Dimitrov's opponents recognize that his forehand is much more powerful and aggressive than his backhand. And now Dimitrov has apparently decided that he is going to hit slice (underspin) shots as if he were the male version of Steffi Graf. Against Anderson, it was designed to get the big man to reach and produce errors, but against the quicker Tsonga, it was setting up cupcakes in front of a starving mob.
Tsonga murdered Dimitrov's methodical slice backhand. It was not a weapon at all, but merely a way for him to play longer rallies. The detriment to this strategy is that it takes away his more aggressive mentality and he shrinks to the back of the baseline like a schoolboy at a formal dance.
Dimitrov must find more topspin power. He can hit the ball on the rise, but has rarely learned to be offensive with this wing. Instead, his backhand slice lacks pace or surprise, and anything short is like standing on the curb and waving at gangsters with Tommy guns.
"It's not an easy loss for me considering that I had played such a good match yesterday," Dimitrov said, per ATPWorldTour.com. "I thought he played a good match, but I think I didn't raise the bar."
Will he adjust at Cincinnati? If not, Dimitrov will be hard-pressed to win the U.S. Open.