Grigor Dimitrov is the 2017 Brisbane International champion, as he overcame Kei Nishikori 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 in a gripping final on Sunday.
Seventh seed Dimitrov slipped into a devastating groove to win the opening set, taking four games in a row with the score locked at 2-2. But Nishikori, seeded third, repeated the trick himself in the second stanza to level the match.
The Bulgarian was the stronger in the third set, though, grabbing a late break of serve and holding his nerve to win his first title for two-and-a-half years.
Here’s a look back at what was a tremendous final and a match to whet the appetite for some high-class tennis with the Australian Open on the horizon.
Dimitrov Digs Deep to Win
Nishikori was the man in form for the majority of this tournament, and he started the contest the more confident of the two, immediately putting pressure on the Dimitrov serve, with three break points coming his way in his first two games returning. However, the Bulgarian was able to dig in and keep himself in contention.
From there, Dimitrov grew into the contest, showcasing the levels that helped him past top seed Milos Raonic in the semi-final on Saturday. There was a swagger to his play, blending precision and power that Nishikori couldn’t cope with.
As Dimitrov broke Nishikori to go 4-2 up, Jose Morgado of Record paid tribute to the seventh seed's performance levels:
José Morgado @josemorgado
Unbelievable from Dimitrov. Can't play any better.2017-1-8 09:57:16
They were levels he preserved for the remainder of the set too. For all his quality and all his experience, Nishikori was finding things difficult against Dimitrov, who was resembling a force of nature on the other side of the net.
The Bulgarian was able to improve his position further in the seventh game, showing more ruthlessness to secure a double break. From there, he served out the set, with the 6-2 scoreline a fair reflection of his dominance.
Tennis writer Nick Nemeroff suggested that when he’s in this form, Dimitrov is capable of hanging with the best players on the planet:
Nick Nemeroff @NNemeroff
Dimitrov competing with anyone at this level. This is top-notch stuff. Takes first set off Nishikori 6-2. Not much else Kei can do.2017-1-8 09:52:16
Dimitrov's problem has always been maintaining these levels throughout matches against high-level opponents like Nishikori. After all, the Japanese was always going to respond in the second stanza.
And that he did, grabbing his first break to move 3-2 ahead of Dimitrov before consolidating with a strong hold. Suddenly, the momentum had shifted, and just as his opponent had done in the first stanza, Nishikori was able to surge to a 6-2 set win, levelling the match up in the process.
As shown by Twitter account doublefault28, the third seed produced some brilliant defensive play in the second set:
#Nishikori https://t.co/ctrVcOllJK2017-1-8 10:26:00
Starting the decider well was always going to be vital, and Nishikori had to be alert to fight off a break point to keep the contest on serve at 1-1. For the first time in the match, neither man was able to pull away from the other with the score at 2-2.
However, Dimitrov always looked the most likely to strike a critical blow in the third stanza, with Nishikori beginning to get a little sloppy. The Japanese gifted his opponent a crucial break, surrendering a 30-0 advantage in the game to allow the Bulgarian to move 5-3 ahead.
With the chance to serve for the match, Dimitrov cut a determined figure and secured his first title since June 2014, when he triumphed on grass at Queen's. As detailed by Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times, Dimtirov beat some quality players en route to clinching glory in Brisbane, Australia:
Ben Rothenberg @BenRothenberg
Dust off the ol' hype machine? #17 Grigor Dimitrov starts 2017 with a robust title in Brisbane, beating top-10ers Thiem, Raonic, Nishikori.2017-1-8 11:05:45
"It’s been pretty emotional the last year or so," Dimitrov said afterward, per the competition's official website. "This trophy means a lot. These 10 days I’ve had here have been the most fun I’ve had on a tennis court."
Nishikori, meanwhile, revealed a knock to his hip has added to the disappointment of losing, per the Brisbane International Twitter account:
#Nishikori: "It is my hip... I'm not sure how bad. I'm a little bit sad to finish like this." #BrisbaneTennis https://t.co/8WOMp8zV8r2017-1-8 12:02:20
Having endured some torrid spells in 2016, Dimitrov showed signs of swagger again and the kind of form that took him to a Wimbledon semi-final in 2014.
Dimitrov displayed everything needed to be a big success this year throughout this winning run, as his game was rife with determination, mental strength and skill. Based on his efforts at the Brisbane Invitational, he's a man plenty will be hoping to avoid in the Australian Open draw on Friday.