Grigor Dimitrov and Steve Johnson face off for the third time this year as first round action continues at the China Open. Dimitrov won their last encounter, a straight sets win at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati in August.
Grigor Dimitrov vs Steve Johnson
Dimitrov will have the edge in match play after making the quarterfinals in Chengdu last week. The Bulgarian dropped a three setter to Albert Ramos-Vinolas that included a pair or tie breaks. Overall, he looked fairly solid in his first action since the U.S. Open. Dimitrov makes his return to Beijing after skipping the tournament a year ago. His last visit was his best with Dimitrov making the quarterfinals in 2014. He had lost his first match the previous two trips to Beijing before that result.
Johnson hits the court for the first time since a disappointing end to the summer. After making the quarters at the Rio Olympics and then again in Cincinnati, Johnson went 2-2 combined at Winston-Salem and the U.S. Open. He was completely overpowered by Juan Martin Del Potro in New York after a shaky five set comeback win over Evgeny Donksoy in the opening round. The rest may serve Johnson well after a busy summer schedule that saw him play almost every week from June to August. This will be his China Open debut.
This meeting marks the fifth time that Dimitrov and Johnson will do battle. Last year, they split two meetings with Dimitrov winning on grass at Wimbledon and then Johnson taking a hard court meeting in Washington, D.C. This season, the results flipped with Johnson taking a four set win at Wimbledon and Dimitrov beating Johnson in straights in Cincinnati. Dimitrov bullied Johnson with better overall play in the 7-6 (8), 6-2 win in Cincy. He fought off all three break points he faced and was a rock on serve, winning 77 percent of the points. Johnson struggled a bit, winning just 63 percent of his service points. The American was broken two times on three chances. His second serve was especially poor as Dimitrov took 12 of 17 points.
The Wimbledon meeting in June was was a back and forth affair with both facing double digit break chances on serve. Dimitrov saved 10 of 16 break chances with Johnson doing slightly better, saving 11 of 14 break points. Only 14 points separated the pair over four sets with Johnson doing a bit better with his ground strokes as he crafted 59 winners to 49 for Dimitrov. That aggressive play from Johnson was a key to his good run of results this summer and will be something he should look to repeat in Beijing on Tuesday.
For Johnson, his game starts with his serve. If his serve is off slightly, he struggles to get positive results. His return game isn’t going to attract much attention with the American winning just 19 percent of the return games he has played this season. He also converts only around 33 percent of the break points he sees. Conversely, Dimitrov has won 22 percent of the return games he has played this season while converting 37 percent of the break points he has seen.
A key difference is the pop Johnson provides on serve that has allowed him to save 71 percent of the break points against him. Dimitrov is only saving 61 percent his season. Traditionally in this meeting, break chances will come against both serves and the stats will be pretty telling in that category. Off the ground, Johnson will do everything he can to get around and hit his forehand. The slice backhand he has added this season has been a key to allowing him to get into position to do that more and more. When Johnson remains focused, he’ll hit the slice backhand over and over, until he can get himself into position to nail a forehand.
Don’t expect Dimitrov to go away from testing that backhand though as it is still the best way to beat the American in ground exchanges. Dimitrov has good variety off his own backhand to help him keep Johnson in uncomfortable positions. The key will be Dimitrov’s willingness to turn aggressive at the correct time, a problem that has long plagued his game. If he waits for Johnson to become the aggressor, that will play into Stevie J’s hands and put Dimitrov in a losing position.
Neither player has anything to lose here and will have a chance to score a seeded scalp in the next round against 6th seed Lucas Pouille. It’s tough to know exactly what Johnson has in the tank without having played a match in nearly a month. He’s also played Tokyo the last few seasons rather than Beijing, so this is a new experience for him. Even though he lost a winnable match last week in Chengdu, Dimitrov likely should have better form to go on with those three matches under his belt. Johnson isn’t without a chance here, especially if he can start quick and take the opening set. Still, I’ll go Dimitrov here as long has his serve is at least “adequate” with Johnson taking a set along the way.
Dimitrov wins in three sets