Alexandr Dolgopolov is on the verge of a breakthrough at the Indian Wells tennis tournament in California. There is quite a hurdle for him to overcome though if he is to make it. It comes in the form of one of the greatest players to ever play the game: Roger Federer. If the Ukrainian can get past Federer in the semi-finals, he will make his first ATP 1000 tournament final. And not just any old ATP 100o final, but the one touted as the “fifth Major”.
He would also have a victory over Roger Federer under his belt, which would make going from being on the verge of a breakthrough to making one even sweeter. Not so much sweeter for Dolgopolov, though. When quizzed after his Raonic win in the last eight about the possibility of playing the four time Indian Wells Champion, Dolgopolov did not start talking about how great Roger Federer was. His 17 grand slams did that, Dolgopolov said. The most effusive Dolgopolov got was to say Roger was Roger, that Roger had “been around.”
Dolgopolov has also been around Federer a lot, practicing, so the two are more than familiar enough with each other’s unique games. On the pro circuit though they have only met once, back in 2010 in Federer’s hometown of Basel, with Dolgopolov unable to finish the match. But that contest was a long way back. The Dolgopolov of today has quite a few tools to trouble Federer: speed, an unpredictable mix of slices and flat strokes, a hard to read serve. That serve won him 90 percent of the first serves he put in against Raonic. A similar stat against Federer and the Ukrainian will have his workload made a lot easier. The Indian Wells surface, slower than most hard court surfaces on the tour, is also playing to the Ukrainian’s strengths, suiting the Dolgopolov baseline game, a game he is particularly confident in after his Raonic win. But what will trouble the Swiss the most will be the quirky nature of the Dolgopolov game, one rarely seen on the tour.
Dolgopolov is not only peaking on the technical side. His mentality is strong , too, an important factor in going from being on the verge of a breakthrough to actually making one. In his post-Raonic press-conference, Dolgopolov was asked how he felt about the possibility of beating both Nadal and Federer in the same tournament. He said that it was not his goal to beat them, going on to say that winning against them was “nice” but they are players like anyone else, and like anyone else, “they can win; they can lose.” That attitude might very well account for Dolgopolov’s win over Nadal, The Spaniard had beaten him just a few weeks back in the Rio final, a match which saw the two contest a tight second set tiebreaker, but Dolgopolov was quick to put that loss behind him. Dolgopolov, who in his post-match interview after the Raonic match said he subscribed to the healthy idea that the better player wins on the day, came out, played the better tennis and won.
That win over Nadal would have gone down as just another upset if Dolgopolov had gone out in the next round. Dolgopolov did not suffer a let down though. Instead, he upped his level, beating 13th seeded Fabio Fognini 6-2, 6-4, and then 10th seeeded Milos Raonic 6-3, 6-4. Both wins were as clean as they come, filled with the kind of shot-making and touch the Ukrainian has become famous for. The match against Raonic was especially impressive because Raonic had been in some of his best form, knocking out Murray in the previous round. That good form threatened to dominate the second set in which Raonic led 3-0 but Dolgopolov turned things around and took the next five games.
If Dolgopolov can bring it all together against Federer, the key to what he sees as making a player into a top tenner, he would go from being on the verge of a breakthrough to making one. He has been on the verge before, making the quarter-finals of the 2011 Australian Open. There he went down to eventual finalist Murray in four sets. But, crucially, he was not able to post other big results in subsequent big events to make it an actual breakthrough into the upper tier of the game. Should he win against Federer though and make the Indian Wells final, beating both Nadal and Federer in the same tournament, and an ATP1000 one at that, Dolgopolov would have broken through to the very big time. Once there, with his talent and self-belief, it is anyone’s guess what other breakthroughs Dolgopolov could be on the verge of.
Commentary by Christian Deverille