Debate: is Nadal invincible?
The last-minute withdrawal of Viktor Troicki saw Dimitrov's early test turn into an first-round nerve-settler.
A lucky net cord, a pocket of partisan support, the last-minute withdrawal of a potentially tricky opponent – a small twist of fortune is often enough to settle faltering self-confidence. Grigor Dimitrov must have thanked the tennis gods when he heard, only an hour before opening proceedings on Court Philippe-Chatrier, that Viktor Troicki, the volatile Serb who beat him in five sets in the first round at Roland-Garros in 2016, had withdrawn citing lower back pain. Instead of someone with whom he has “history”, Dimitrov’s opponent was to be Mohamed Safwat, the Egyptian No.1, making his Grand Slam debut on one of the biggest stages of the game.
Despite some predictions that he might be the first big upset of the tournament, Dimitrov’s first-round test turned into a first-round nerve settler as he beat Safwat 6-1 6-4 7-6(1) in just over two hours.
Safwat was drawn seventh in the list of lucky losers and the 27-year-old from Mansoura, who had lost his qualifying third round to Argentina’s Guido Andreozzi, happily became the first Egyptian to compete in a Grand Slam main draw since Tamer El Sawy in 1996 – only after scurrying from the locker room on Court Suzanne-Lenglen, preparing to experiment with different racquet tensions as he had no idea how the surface on Chatrier would play. “I always dreamed of playing on centre court with such a crowd. And I had thoughts I might get in here and play Nadal in the first round,” he said later.
A dream scenario for Safwat averted a potential nightmare scenario for Dimitrov. Why, you may ask, need the No.4 seed and ATP Finals champion, have feared Troicki, ranked 89th in the world? The answer is the mystery that is Dimitrov’s record on the Paris terre battue.
In seven previous attempts, the Bulgarian has never gone beyond the third round here, and would dearly like to bury the memory of four previous chastening first-round exits. He arrived at Roland-Garros positioned 35th in the list of best men performers on clay this year – a notable disparity from his world ranking and hardly an endorsement of promise at this tournament. The mystery deepens because he has the game to thrive on clay, as proven by a title won in Bucharest (2014). Warming up for Roland-Garros this year, he reached the semi-final at Monte Carlo and quarter-final at Barcelona, losing respectably to Nadal and Pablo Carreno Busta respectively.
“I grew on up on clay. I think first time I hit on hard court was 11 or 12 years old. Until then it was all clay for me,” he said. “I never shied away from that surface. I always liked it. I always thought I could do better and I want to do better. So one day I know that I'm going to just improve. I think I'm improving with each year. I'm finding a better way of playing, and moving on the surface. Surely, we're going to get there.”
Indeed, but relief it was for, as the scoreline reflects, Dimitrov’s victory was not emphatic. Having secured the first set with the loss of only one game in 21 minutes, he relaxed and allowed Safwat to acclimatise to the big stage. If the Egyptian’s range of groans of effort were initially more varied than his shotmaking, he was soon pumping his fists. In the sixth game of the second set, Safwat, broke serve and started to string together drop-shot, smash and glorious cross-court forehand winners. Who knows what might have happened had he not secured that third set in the tiebreak?
“Each game he start to feel a bit more comfortable and a bit looser hitting his shots,” Dimitrov said. “He was obviously very nervous at the beginning. I felt that in the first set. And even at some point in the second. When you have nothing to lose and you come in and start shooting a little bit, and he was serving well, everything was just going his way. But, I didn't panic or I didn't feel like, what's going on or anything like that. I was just trying to find a little window where I could swoop in and take the match.”
Next up for the Bulgarian is American youngster Jared Donaldson, who beat Nicolas Jarry in five.