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Steve Flink:Two future major champions put on a terrific third round show

1/18/2014 3:00:00 PM

One young man hails from Bulgaria, is 22 years old, and delights the galleries everywhere he goes with his shotmaking sparkle, remarkable speed and extraordinary athleticism. The other player is a 6’5” Canadian, one of the game’s greatest servers, an overwhelming physical force who can take matches almost entirely into his own hands with immense power, considerable poise, and a growing arsenal of shots. He is 23. The former is the appealing Grigor Dimitrov; the latter is the admirable Milos Raonic. They just met in the third round of the Australian Open in a highly anticipated clash, and put on a terrific show. In the end, the No. 22 seed Dimitrov was marginally better than No. 11 seed Raonic, upending the big man 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (10) in a first rate contest.

That either fellow had to depart in the third round was in many ways a shame. To be sure, these two men will meet with frequency in the months and years ahead, and it would not surprise me in the least if they took each other on in at least one major final not too far down the road. I firmly believe both players will establish themselves as major champions, and they could well meet in title round matches at Grand Slam events by 2016. These are two highly motivated individuals who have the right mindset to reside in the land of the elite; it is just a matter of time until they realize their full potential and make the most of their ability.

Their absorbing Saturday appointment in Melbourne gave us a nice glimpse into the future, and I liked what I saw from both competitors. Dimitrov and Raonic pushed each other to the hilt with contrasting styles and deep determination. It was a duel of fluctuating fortunes, a crackling battle of wills, a showcase for both men to demonstrate how gifted they are and how much they have to offer. In the opening set, Dimitrov struck a golden patch to capture the last two games, breaking Raonic for 5-3, serving it out commandingly, giving himself a cushion by moving out in front.

Raonic, however, retaliated boldly in the second set, achieving the one break he needed, serving his way authoritatively back to one set all. Both Dimitrov and Raonic had settled into the encounter, the level of play was impressive, and they seemed poised to determine the outcome of the third set in a tie-break. And yet, Raonic never quite knew what hit him. Serving at 4-5, he hurt himself considerably by double faulting into the net on the first point. Dimitrov made a commendable return on the next point off a big first serve from Raonic, who was perhaps caught off guard. The Canadian netted a high forehand to make it 0-30. Raonic ventured forward and punched a backhand volley crosscourt on the following point, but the Bulgarian read that play brilliantly, curling a backhand passing shot down the line for a winner.

It was 0-40. Raonic unleashed another devastatingly potent first serve at 212 kilometers, but the quicksilver reactions of Dimitrov were evident once more. He produced an excellent return with good depth. Raonic was rocked back on his heels and could barely get that ball back into play. Dimitrov then coaxed Raonic into a forehand down the line error. Dimitrov had broken at love to seal the set, counter-attacking magnificently, taking full advantage of the one big lapse from Raonic on the first point.

On they went into the fourth set, and both players sedulously held their serves all the way through to bring about a tie-break that became the centerpiece of the skirmish. The momentum shifts in this sequence were fascinating. At 2-2, Raonic connected beautifully with one of his few effective inside-out backhand returns, sending that shot deep to the Dimitrov forehand. Dimitrov could not summon much in response, and Raonic attacked behind a scorching crosscourt forehand, drawing an error from his off balance opponent. Raonic had the mini-break for 3-2, and he released a thunderbolt that Dimitrov could not return. The Canadian had advanced to 4-2.

But, inexplicably, Raonic went for a safe first serve to the forehand on the next point. He did not send it wide enough, and the serve went right into the wheelhouse of Dimitrov. Raonic had served-and-volleyed, but the return came back at his feet and he netted a forehand half-volley. They were back on serve, with Dimitrov serving at 3-4. He played two superb points on his delivery to reach 5-4, connecting with a first serve down the T to set up a forehand winner, releasing a service winner out wide in the ad court. Serving at 4-5, Raonic missed a forehand approach, and he suddenly found himself down double match point.

The Canadian was unflustered. He swung a slice serve wide in the deuce court to stifle Dimitrov. The Bulgarian still was up match point at 6-5, but Raonic made a fine return off a first serve and eventually took that point with an inside-out forehand that lured Dimitrov into a netted backhand down the line. It was 6-6. Dimitrov had seen two match points slip away, but he swiftly garnered a third with a dazzling moment of pure inspiration. Raonic approached down the line off the forehand, keeping that shot low and deep. Raonic wisely covered the line, but to no avail. On the run, Dimitrov drove a spectacular backhand pass down the line with absolutely no margin for error. He clipped the sideline to establish a 7-6 lead, leaving the fans gasping after that virtuoso display. Raonic refused to be alarmed, reaching 7-7 with a service winner to the backhand, then acing Dimitrov for 8-7.

And so, after saving three match points, a resolute Raonic had his first set point. His return of serve was deep and penetrating, forcing Dimitrov to hit a short ball. Raonic came forward for the approach, but the bounce was very low and the shot arduous. Raonic found the net with his forehand. When Dimitrov missed his first serve at 8-8, Raonic chip-charged down the middle, but Dimitrov was ready for that move. He calmly drove an inside-out forehand passing shot for a clean winner. That shot took Dimitrov to 9-8. He had advanced to match point for the fourth time. Raonic met the moment with aplomb, releasing a service winner to make it 9-9. Dimitrov missed a backhand pass long down the line, and Raonic thus earned a second set point.

The burly Canadian made good contact with a backhand second serve return, but narrowly missed it long, allowing Dimitrov back to 10-10. The Bulgarian then put away a bounce smash emphatically, and that gave him a fifth match point. Raonic was looking to get in off the forehand, but he made an unforced error. Dimitrov had triumphed deservedly, coming through in four hard fought sets. There were only three service breaks, with Dimitrov managing to break his daunting adversary twice. Most significantly, Dimitrov’s supreme control from the back of the court was exemplary. He made only 13 unforced errors, averaging essentially only three a set. Raonic produced 50 winners but Dimitrov had 49. Meanwhile, the serving statistics were revealing. Dimitrov won 83% of his first serve points and 75% of his second serve points while Raonic took only 74% of his first serve points and 59% on second serve points.

Dimitrov has great match playing instincts and his shot selection in this match was unassailable. Raonic was too often untidy off the ground, pressing off the forehand, looking lazy with his footwork from time to time. Dimitrov returned exceedingly well but Raonic did not. No opponent should be allowed to win 75% of their second serve points against someone as imposing as Raonic, but the Canadian needs to improve his return of serve technique and court positioning and must get more consistent bite when he approaches the net.

Be that as it may, Raonic has not come this far without reason. He reached No. 10 in the world last August and should be back in that exclusive company soon. But he needs to make some strides in his performance at the majors. Last year, his best showings were reaching the round of 16 at the Australian Open (losing to Roger Federer), and the U.S. Open, where he was beaten by Richard Gasquet in five sets despite having a match point. He has never been beyond the fourth round at any of the majors in his young career, but that will inevitably change. He ought to make at least the quarters at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open this year; it is high time for him to do that.

As for Dimitrov, this is the first time he has ever gone as far as the round of 16 at the Grand Slam championships. He now meets the Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, who followed up on his startling upset of No. 5 seed Juan Martin Del Potro by erasing No. 27 seed Benoit Paire in straight sets. In Beijing a few months ago, Bautista Agut defeated Dimitrov. The Bulgarian is surely well aware that he must maintain a high level if he wants to get into the quarterfinals. That will be a compelling showdown.

Of this much I am convinced: Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic are here to stay. They don’t call Dimitrov “Little Fed” for nothing; he is capable of becoming a great player with the propensity to enlarge his stature considerably over the next 18 to 24 months. Raonic, too, has the right stuff. He realizes that having one of the best serves in the modern game will not alone take him to the top, and that is why he is working so hard to diversify his game. I am optimistic he will keep working hard and adding elements to his arsenal because he will settle for nothing less than eventually being among the three or four best players in the world; his primary goal, of course, is to become the very best player in tennis. But that goal is shared by Dimitrov, who is fully capable of attaining it.

Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic are going places. I look forward to watching them compete in the game’s upper echelons for many years to come. Tennis is fortunate to have them ready to move to the forefront of the sport.

Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.