Against the expectations of the doubters, two free-hitting, first-time finalists, each trusting his skills to breaking point, gave a remarkable season the denouement it deserved on a cold midwinter’s evening by the Thames. Grigor Dimitrov won, but David Goffin did not leave a loser.
For extended passages of the deciding match of the 2017 ATP World Tour Finals, they brought freshness and daring to a task that has historically been fulfilled by more illustrious rivals. After two‑and‑a‑half hours of often tense, high-grade tennis – the longest final since John McEnroe defeated Arthur Ashe at Madison Square Garden in 1978 – Dimitrov,Bulgaria’s first representative at this end-of-year event, prevailed 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.
It was his fourth title of the year, adding $2,549,000 to the $3m he had already gathered from 44 match wins, and 1,500 ranking points to lift him three places to No3 in the world. At last, the results and the performance have matched the glamour. If Dimitrov can sustain his run in Melbourne in January the Bulgarian and his trainer, Danni Vallverdu, for so long at Andy Murray’s side – can expect a season of much fruitfulness.
A tearful Goffin - who represents Belgium against France in the Davis Cup final later this week - said courtside, “It was a special week for me, a lot of emotions, a lot of fatigue. It was tough. It was not easy to come back after losing to Grigor in the group. Congratulations to Grigor for a fantastic year.”
Dimitrov reciprocated, adding, “It’s such an honour to play here. This has been one of the best weeks I’ve ever had. Unbelievable effort by David, and I wish him the best in the Davis Cup.”
Some thought the departure of Roger Federer (beaten on Saturday by Goffin), Rafael Nadal (defeated by Goffin four days previously), and the absence of Andy Murray (beaten by his unreliable knee) along with the Tour’s other walking wounded had ripped the heart out of this tournament, an event in its ninth year at the venue, with three more to come, under the new sponsorship of Nitto.
However, there have been six sell-out sessions of 17,800, including the final, and 13 of 15 matches drew more than 16,000. The lowest attendance was 15,193 on Tuesday afternoon for the match between Jack Sock and Marin Cilic, but the tournament total of 253,642 – just ahead of last year, if short of the 2012 record of 263,229 – the year London went Olympics crazy. There are tournament directors around the world in all sorts of sports who would die happy persuading more than a quarter of a million fans to watch their product.
The start was riddled with nerves on both sides of the net, neither player able to hold serve until the 19th minute as they tentatively explored all the safe options before opening their shoulders.
Consecutive aces by Goffin secured the first hold of the match and there was a restlessness in the capacity crowd, who were waiting for caviar and were having to make do with fish fingers. The menu was about to change.
Both men were going for their shots, and Dimitrov broke to level in the eighth game as the level of the exchanges grew in quality and length, although Goffin’s overcooked forehand betrayed lingering uncertainty under pressure. At last the arena was warming to the contest, and the combatants responded.
Goffin, the first Belgian since doubles specialist Dick Norman in 2010 to reach this tournament, was getting in and out of trouble like a frog in a hot tub. He quivered again with ball in hand in the 12th game, but it took Dimitrov five set points to crack his resolve and take the frame in just under an hour, forcing a sixth unforced error from him on the backhand.
Just as Dimitrov looked to be pulling away, Goffin broke for a third time in the second set. A rare double net-cord off his deep backhand that dribbled over, and a ridiculously brilliant half-volley off his toes in the 10th game helped Dimitrov to keep the set alive. There was little he could do, though, to stop the Belgian holding to love and level the match at one set each.
It took Dimitrov 11 minutes to hold at the start of the third – about the same time it took him to seal the first – so there was no lack of commitment under fire. Goffin’s serve was the difference between then – he had lost only five first serves in nearly two hours, a crushing 87 per cent – so Dimitrov had to find his crumbs elsewhere, and he did in the sixth game when he pushed Goffin deep and watched his backhand drift wide for the break.
In the penultimate game Dimitrov lobbed then passed Goffin, who saved three match points, held then turned to the crowd to conduct them in their roar of support. Dimitrov sweated heavily as he set about serving out for the biggest win of his career, grateful for two tired groundstrokes by Goffin. Gifted his fifth match point, he saw a forehand inch long. And how grateful he was when Goffin dumped a simple backhand into the net. The crowd gave both of them an ovation every bit as loud as if Federer had won another title here.