Rafael Nadal Fights off Grigor Dimitrov; Roger Federer up Next

Rafael Nadal sets up quarterfinal meeting with Roger Federer.

Rafael Nadal sets up quarterfinal meeting with Roger Federer.

MASON, Ohio — Rafael Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov had only met twice before Thursday evening’s three set showdown. In their first meeting, Dimitrov was a newcomer on tour, just 18 years of age. He played a great match and even took the second set against Nadal, but the then-world No. 1 was just too much for the young Bulgarian.

The pair met again this year in Monte Carlo. Nadal was playing very good tennis on his favorite surface that tournament, but their match took a similar trajectory as the first one. Dimitrov played an incredible match and took the second set against the Spaniard. Once again, however, Nadal proved too much in the third and took the match, keeping his dream for a ninth consecutive Monte Carlo title alive (Nadal would lose to Djokovic in the final).

Dimitrov got off to a slow start in Thursday’s match, hitting a few too many errors and not playing at his peak. He was still playing well, actually, but anything less than peak play just won’t cut it against someone of Nadal’s level.

Dimitrov actually played a very smart match and his shotmaking skills were on full display. He wasn’t blasting very many winners past Nadal, but he was staying toe-to-toe with Nadal in baseline rallies and not letting him hit winners either. He had a very strong backhand slice, daring Nadal to try and hit forehands off of deep balls that were low to the ground. Nadal’s ability to hit good forehands from uncomfortable positions that Dimitrov created was the difference in this match. If Nadal’s forehand had been just a tiny bit weaker, this match would have very quickly gone the way of the young Bulgarian.

As it was, Dimitrov raised his level when down a break in the second set and managed to break back. Then, after having unsuccessful set points in Nadal’s 4-5 service game, Dimitrov took his second break point in the 5-6 game to even the match.

Nadal stepped his game back up in the third set and Dimitrov faltered just a little, which was all it took. Nadal took the third set 6-2 with two breaks to move on to face Federer in the quarterfinals.

Nadal noted the similarity between Federer’s and Dimitrov’s games, something that has been a talking point for a few years. He said that “the style is very similar. Yeah, the game is similar, but for the moment, what we can compare is the style than the level of tennis. Dimitrov can play at a very, very high level, and I’m sure he will have a great chance to be in the top positions if he keep improving.”

This matchup is interesting though. For all that their styles are similar, Nadal has dominated Federer over the years by attacking Federer’s backhand with his heavy balls. Eventually, Federer’s backhand breaks down and Nadal can win matches attacking that wing. Dimitrov’s bachkand never broke down, though, and Nadal didn’t attack it as much. Dimitrov and Federer are not the same person, obviously, but Federer can probably learn from Dimitrov/Nadal matches, just like Nadal can make adjustments against Dimitrov based on his past history with Federer.

Speaking of Federer, Nadal is excited to be facing him again. He commented on their historic rivalry.

“Always [to] play against Roger is a special feeling. We have a great history behind us in our confrontations, so it’s not another quarterfinals. It’s a special one because you’re playing against a very special player. Our matches were very special always.”

In this one, though, expect Roger’s backhand to see a lot of heavy balls.