Australian Open 2020: Unheralded Tommy Paul rises to the occasion as Grigor Dimitrov's inconsistency returns to haunt him

Deepti Patwardhan

As Grigor Dimitrov and Tommy Paul warmed up for their second-round match at the Australian Open on Wednesday, the win predictor flashed on the screen; 74% in favour of the Bulgarian. Seeded 18th in Melbourne, Dimitrov was the favourite on paper but the commentators argued that the match could be much closer.

No one quite imagined the fight that the 22-year-old Paul would put up. He unsettled Dimitrov with his easy shot-making to go two sets up, and kept battling even when the Bulgarian erased that lead and came within two points of completing a stunning comeback win. Paul, playing in the fifth set only for the second time in his career, looked spent as he clutched at his hamstring and hobbled around the court. But he got the job done. After four hours and 19 minutes €" the longest match at the Australian Open so far €" Paul emerged a 6-4, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (10-3) winner.

Grigor Dimitrov in action during an Australian Open match against Tommy Paul. AP

Grigor Dimitrov in action during an Australian Open match against Tommy Paul. AP

"I've never been a part of something like that, honestly," an exhausted Paul said during the courtside interview. "I've never really played back-to-back best-of-five matches. I guess if you're going to have a second one, why not go 7-6 in the fifth!"

Though relatively inexperienced on the big stage, Paul is not unknown to the tennis world. He won the first all-American boys' singles final at Roland Garros in 2015 and has steadily risen up the rankings €" peaking at 79 in October 2019. At last year's French Open, he took a set off eventual finalist Dominic Thiem and has been billed as the 'next big thing' by Nick Kyrgios.

Playing in the second round of a major for the very first time on Wednesday, Paul gave a glimpse of that potential early on. As unthreatening as he looked, especially in that dotted magenta-and-yellow jersey, Paul dominated the court with easy power. His stand-and-deliver forehands had Dimitrov scurrying around the court all day.

Though he has made the semi-finals of a Grand Slam thrice, and been in the top 5, the Bulgarian is not one of the most consistent performers. His highest of highs have usually been followed by disappointing lows. He seemed on an upswing when he finished the 2019 major season by beating Roger Federer at the US Open and making the last four. But the 28-year-old has looked vulnerable yet again in Melbourne.

And it was a bad service game he put in, at 4-4, in the first set that gave Paul just the opening he needed. Three breakpoints up in the ninth game, Paul attacked Dimitrov serve, drilling a backhand deep to the Bulgarian's forehand and saw the reply flop into the net. The young American showed no signs of nerve as he served out the first set 6-4 with an unreturned body serve.

Even as Dimitrov played more aggressive in the second set, pulling off his signature backhand winners and a few picture-perfect passes, Paul refused to retreat. The two went toe-to-toe in the set, Dimitrov hitting 17 winners and 17 unforced errors and Paul with a tally of 15 winners and 15 unforced errors. The American once again held his nerve better in the tie-break, winning it 7-3 to take a 2-0 lead.

Dimitrov, who has been on the tour for more than a decade, has never won a match from two sets down. But he did give it a good go.

The two players exchanged breaks in two tightly fought games to start the third set. It was the Bulgarian who broke the deadlock, as he forced a backhand error from Paul to go up 4-3 in the set. He broke Paul's service thrice in the set to get the wheels turning on an unlikely comeback. Dimitrov started engaging him in longer rallies, testing out his range and his patience. Moving the American side to side, he started drawing out the errors.

By the end of the fourth set, it seemed like the youngster was fading physically. Dimitrov steadied the ship by winning the tie-breaker and levelling the match.

And it looked like his experience would carry him through the minefield of a fifth set. Again the pair exchanged breaks in the fifth and sixth games, but the Bulgarian pulled ahead 4-3, as he pulled off a brilliant backhand down the line pass. Serving for the match at 5-4, 30-0, though, the famous Dimitrov nerves returned to haunt the Bulgarian.

A striking winner by Paul was followed by two back-to-back forehand errors from the 28-year-old. On breakpoint, a 20-shot rally finished with the American attacking the net and drawing a backhand error from Dimitrov. While the more-established player was guilty of playing too passive in important moments, his errors were just the whip of second wind Paul needed.

The American, hitting hard in the hope of keeping the points short now, overwhelmed Dimitrov in the match tie-break. He pulled ahead 4-3, with a forceful backhand return that the Bulgarian just gets a racquet to. With his opponent fizzling out at the other end, Paul won the next six points to seal the biggest win of his career so far.

While Paul next faces Marton Fucsovics, who has eliminated young guns Denis Shapovalov and Jannik Sinner in the previous rounds, the road ahead for Dimitrov remains a mystery.

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Australian Open 2020: Roger Federer cruises into third round; Fabio Fognini emerges victorious after marathon five-setter

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