When two fourth round debutants are competing for a prized Grand Slam tournament quarterfinal berth, it’s tough to foresee just how the two competitors will rise to the occasion.
This was the context surrounding Monday’s last-16 bout between Grigor Dimitrov and Roberto Bautista Agut, and as the pair vascillated between good and bad, tense and uninhibited, the outcome remained unpredictable until the very last point.
It was Dimitrov who ultimately clinched that, sealing a 6-3 3-6 6-2 6-4 victory in two hours and 24 minutes to progress to his maiden major quarterfinal, and a likely meeting with world No.1 Rafael Nadal.
“I feel great actually,” he smiled in his on court interview.
“A bit tired actually, but we all know how Roberto is performing (at this event), what a great run, he gave me hell today.
“I’m just happy, you know. It’s great to be out here.”
Bautista Agut had indeed enjoyed a blistering run to this stage of the tournament, sensationally ousting fifth seed and recent Sydney champion Juan Martin del Potro in the second round and then belting No.27 seed Benoit Paire in straight sets.
Thankfully for Dimitrov, the Spaniard’s flat, powerfully-struck groundstrokes that had been so often finding the lines during the past week at Melbourne Park were missing the mark on Monday.
He erred on three forehands in the fourth game to hand Dimitrov a break and a 3-1 lead; Dimitrov then relaxed into the contest and displayed his full repertoire of strokes, including a volley off his shoelaces for a winner, after which he leapt into the air to help his shot over the net.
The crowd roared, and the Bulgarian 22nd seed, thanks to a little more flair and a little more consistency, pocketed the opening set in 32 minutes.
That volley also exemplified how the two men are positioned at completely opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum.
Dimitrov, he of the “Baby Fed” moniker, does what the Swiss legend has executed to perfection for the better part of a decade, varying his spins and trajectories, playing his groundstrokes with plenty of shape and margin, and demonstrating polish in the forecourt.
Bautista Agut, something of a grinder, hits his groundies flatter than most, and with one pace – hard.
And it was smash beating panache in the second set, as suddenly, the world No.62 upped his intensity and began to find his range.
He was helped by a drastic drop in the level of Dimitrov, who played a disastrous second game in botching a pair of volleys, a forehand and a sliced backhand to drop serve.
Dominating the baseline rallies, the Spaniard forged ahead 3-0, and when leading 5-2, was gifted the set when Dimitrov coughed up four errors, the first three being unforced.
“Actually the last two times I lost to him so that’s how I knew what to expect,” Dimitrov reflected.
“It was a great match, he came out pretty strong in that second set and I felt like I had to really work.”
The topsy-turvy nature of the match persisted into the third set.
A stop-volley winner from Dimitrov brought up break points in the fourth game, and after deploying a succession of biting sliced backhands, drew an error into net from Bautista Agut to vault ahead 3-1.
Faced with a two-sets-to-one deficit, the Spaniard did everything right in the fourth set, except win it.
He threw everything he had into his groundstrokes, pounding them relentlessly at the Bulgarian who often stuck his racquet out in desperation simply to survive in rallies.
As Bautista Agut held each of his service games with ease, Dimitrov was forced to work mighty hard in his own. But nobody could break the deadlock, although Bautista Agut did come close in the ninth game, leading 0-30 before Dimitrov recovered to hold and nose ahead 5-4.
Against the tide, the Spaniard then sprayed three errors from the baseline, including one on match point.
He challenged the call, but it was in vain – Hawkeye confirmed he’d missed, and Dimitrov ran smiling to the net to meet him, his passage into the quarters secured.