2016 ATP China Open: Rafael Nadal vs Grigor Dimitrov

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A spot in the China Open semifinals is on the line as third seeded Rafael Nadal squares off against Grigor Dimitrov. Nadal is a perfect 7-0 against the Bulgarian with their last meeting coming about one year ago in Basel.

(2) Rafael Nadal vs Grigor Dimitrov
It has been an easy go for Nadal this week with a pair of straight sets wins to begin his campaign in Beijing. On Thursday, he edged Adrian Mannarino 6-1, 7-6 (6). Nadal came out on fire in the opening set, winning 16 of 20 points on serve. He would break Mannarino twice on six chances as he pounded the Frenchman’s serve. Nadal would win 14 of the 25 points played on Mannarino’s serve in the set. The second set was a bit more nervy after Nadal broke early, Mannarino levelled the set at 3-3 with his lone break of Rafa’s serve. Nadal kept the pressure on, seeing two more break chances, before the set ultimately landed in a tiebreak. The tiebreak was a roller coaster with Nadal falling behind early 2-0 and then blowing a 5-3 lead before securing the match on his second try, 8-6 the final score in the breaker.

Dimitrov was stretched to three sets again on Thursday as he rallied after dropping the opening set tiebreak to upend sixth seed Lucas Pouille 6-7 (3), 7-6 (0), 6-4. Dimitrov was solid through as Pouille managed just the one break on a single break point. That came in the second set, where Dimitrov would also net his only break of the Pouille serve off of three chances. Overall, Dimitrov won 77 percent of his service points with the big difference coming on second serves. Both players were forced to go that route nearly half the time in the match and it was Dimitrov who showed much more effective, winning 33 of his 47 second serve points. Pouille won just 31 of 58.

This 8th meeting between Nadal and Dimitrov will be their first on an outdoor hard court since the Australian Open in 2014. Nadal is won that encounter in four sets and beat Dimitrov in their only other outdoor hard court meeting in 2013, a three set win in Cincinnati. Through the seven meetings between the two, Dimitrov has managed to at least take one set five times. That includes Nadal’s 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win in Basel last October.

A recurring theme in the clashes between these two has been Nadal’s destruction of Dimitrov’s second serve. In Basel, Nadal won 64 percent of the points played off Dimitrov’s second. That followed up a straight sets win for Nadal in Madrid on clay, where he took 60 percent of the second serve points. Nadal broke Dimitrov ten times in their two matches played in 2015. Dimitrov’s serve has been pretty stout this week against Steve Johnson and Lucas Pouille with just three breaks of serve against him on four chances. Nadal’s level of return is much better than either player however, so it will pose a significant challenge for Dimitrov.

Nadal himself has been broken just once on five tries through two matches against Paolo Lorenzi and Adrian Mannarino. He too will see a better returner this time. Rafa has had his issues with his serve against Dimitrov, but has been bailed out due to his ability to break down Dimitrov’s serve. The pair of 2015 meetings saw Rafa broken six times on eleven chances, but that pales in comparison to the ten breaks he crafted off of 23 break points.

So that sets the tone for this quarterfinal meeting with the serve being a large part of the equation in determining the winner. For Dimitrov, he’s going to have to find a way to be better in fending off break chances. Better yet, if he could cut down the number of chances that Rafa sees off his serve, that would be very beneficial. History says however that Nadal is going to likely see somewhere close to, if not exceeding double digit break chances. If Dimitrov wants to entertain any thought of anything other than loss #8 at the hands of the Spaniard, he’ll need to save probably 70 percent of better of those opportunities against his serve.

For Nadal, the math is simple. Even if his serve struggles, he will be confident that he can get any breaks right back off Dimitrov’s serve. As far as the ground game goes, Nadal will prefer this to be a baseline ball bashing session. Dimitrov unfortunately is all-too-willing to engage in those tactics more often than not. I beat on it almost every time, but the more Dimitrov lets rallies grow, the more likely he seems to have trouble making the right decision on how to finish points.

Aggressive play is a necessity against Nadal off the ground and that isn’t really the biggest strength of the variety-plagued Dimitrov ground game. Dimitrov has all the shots, but that often can be an issue. Which one do I use? Do I use this one now? That’s not to say Dimitrov cannot execute the proper game plan, but he seems to have trouble consistently doing it over the course of three sets versus Nadal. Nadal’s wicked top spin forehand is still so good at pushing opponents back into defensive positions. It’s on Dimitrov to try and find the best court positioning against Nadal’s groundies.

That might include targeting Nadal’s backhand a bit more. Dimitrov’s one handed backhand uses both the slice and a flatter shot that can be effective. I think he can work into backhand to backhand exchanges and find success, but the question will again be if Dimitrov can turn aggressive and offensive at the proper time. If he allows Rafa to dictate that timing, he’s lost the plot and likely the match.

This will be a physically demanding match of Dimitrov as all Nadal encounters usually are and the Bulgarian has already had a pair of fairly lengthy three set matches this week. That could give Nadal the edge he needs to properly wear down Dimitrov over the course of three sets. I do think Dimitrov has played well enough this week to think that he can get a set here and even entertain the possibility of an upset if Nadal’s level isn’t up to snuff. In the end though, I think the grind gets Rafa win #8 over Dimitrov and a spot in the semifinals.

Prediction
Nadal wins in three sets

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