Grigor Dimitrov's Reality Check: The Day Rafael Nadal Stood in His Path at 17

Grigor Dimitrov challenged world no. 1 Rafael Nadal in Rotterdam 2009 at 17

by Jovica Ilic
Grigor Dimitrov's Reality Check: The Day Rafael Nadal Stood in His Path at 17
© Hamish Blair / Staff - Getty Images Sport

Grigor Dimitrov made a winning start at the Australian Open, beating Marton Fucsovics in four sets. During the press conference, Grigor recalled his first years on the Tour and his battles against the rivals from the top. Dimitrov debuted in 's-Hertogenbosch in June 2008 and earned a wild card in Rotterdam in February 2009, still at 17.

The young Bulgarian scored his first ATP triumph over Tomas Berdych, ousting a top-25 player in three sets and setting the clash against world no. 1 and the Australian Open winner, Rafael Nadal! Dimitrov pushed the world's best player to the limits for two and a half hours before losing 7-5, 3-6, 6-2.

Grigor explained it was probably better for him to finish on the losing side and face a reality check, aware of how much he needed to work to join those players at the top. Dimitrov admitted it was an honor to compete in such a strong era despite not winning titles, recalling all the experience he gained and the fun he had while contesting the legends.

Grigor has won nine ATP titles, the majority in 2014 and 2017, his best seasons. The Bulgarian has been very consistent recently, finishing the 2023 season in style and opening the current one with the Brisbane title, chasing a top-10 spot for the first time since November 2018.

Fifteen years ago, a teenager from Bulgaria almost stunned world no. 1 Nadal on an indoor court in Rotterdam, clinching the second set before losing ground in the decider. Grigor fired nine aces and stayed in touch with Rafa behind the first serve.

The Spaniard delivered better numbers behind the second serve, fending off seven out of nine break points and emerging at the top with four breaks on his tally. Dimitrov squandered game points in the encounter's first game and lost serve after a loose slice.

World no. 1 held at love in the second game with a service winner and squandered a break chance at 2-0 with a wayward forehand. Rafa opened a 3-1 gap with a service winner before Grigor reduced the deficit with a hold at 30 in the next one.

Grigor Dimitrov, Rotterdam 2009© Hamish Blair / Staff - Getty Images Sport

The Spaniard felt the ball nicely in his games, delivering another comfortable hold with a forehand crosscourt winner for a 4-2 lead.

A teenager defended a break point in game seven with a brave attack and forced Nadal's mistake to remain within one break deficit. Rafa faced the first issues behind the initial shot in the eighth game, spraying a forehand error and offering Grigor three break chances.

The Spaniard saved them and reached deuce before the Bulgarian seized the fourth after Nadal's loose forehand, leveling the score at 4-4. The young gun served well in the ninth game, closing it at love with a service winner and building his first advantage.

Rafa served to stay in the set in game ten and held at love after Grigor's backhand error, locking the result at 5-5 and increasing the drama. Dimitrov netted a routine forehand in the 11th game, offering Nadal three break chances.

Rafa converted the first with a volley winner at the net, moving 6-5 in front and serving for the set.

Grigor Dimitrov played against Rafael Nadal in Rotterdam 2009 at 17.

Nadal created three set points and converted the first with a serve & volley combo for 7-5 after an hour.

The 17-year-old made a fresh start in the second set, firing an ace down the T line in the first game for 1-0. World no. 1 responded with a hold at love in game two, leveling the score at 1-1 with a service winner. The young gun delivered another perfect hold in game three, moving 2-1 up and building confidence.

Rafa painted a forehand crosscourt winner in the fourth game, following the rival's pace and staying in touch. Dimitrov landed an ace in the fifth game, and Nadal brought them to 3-3 with a hold at 30. Grigor stepped in on the return in the eighth game, cracking a forehand down the line winner and earning a break chance.

Nadal missed a backhand, falling 5-3 behind and allowing his rival to serve for the set. The young gun held at 30 in game nine, wrapping up the set in 40 minutes and forcing a decider. World no. 1 held at love in the first game, and a teenager followed that pace with a service winner in game two.

They served well in the next two games before Dimitrov attacked in game five and created a break chance with a forehand down the line winner. Nadal denied it with a forehand winner before playing against the second. He drew Dimitrov's backhand error and brought the game home with a service winner.

Grigor played a loose service game after missing his chances, getting broken at 15 in game six and sending Rafa 4-2 in front. The Bulgarian kept fighting and earned a break chance in game seven after the Spaniard's wild forehand.

Rafa denied it with a volley winner at the net before facing the second break point after a forehand mistake. Nadal saved it and finally brought the game home after Dimitrov's poor volley at the net. Grigot served to stay in the match at 2-5 and netted another volley to experience match points.

Rafa converted the second with a forced error, breaking the young gun's resistance and moving into the quarter-final.

Rafael Nadal, Rotterdam 2009© Hamish Blair / Staff - Getty Images Sport

"It all happened fast.

My first ATP matches came against Tomas Berdych and Rafael Nadal in Rotterdam. I beat Tomas and faced Rafa, the Australian Open champion, a day later. Honestly, it was better for me to lose in three sets than to win, facing a reality check.

Facing the top-20 rivals was tough back then, and I had to build my body and the game to challenge them. I enjoyed that period despite not winning too many titles, gathering experience and enjoying a lot," Grigor Dimitrov said.

Grigor Dimitrov Rafael Nadal