It was a sportsmanlike, old-school finish to a winner-slapping, new-school duel. And it seems about time for Dimitrov to take those words to heart in a major tournament.
For all his evident ability and athleticism, he has yet to reach a Grand Slam singles final. For all the miles he has traveled and high-profile mentors he has consulted in his journey to excellence that began in his native Bulgaria, he has not yet had the psychic payoff he seeks in an era dominated by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
But momentum is building. Dimitrov won his most prestigious title at the end of last season: the ATP Tour World Finals in London. And though he struggled in the early rounds of this tournament with his one-handed backhand and second serve, hitting 29 double faults in his first three matches, he was much more precise and resolute against the prodigiously unpredictable Kyrgios.
“That match was incredibly intense, and I think the best man won,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of Serena Williams, as he stood in a corridor in Rod Laver Arena in the aftermath.
Mouratoglou once advised Dimitrov when he trained as a teenager at Mouratoglou’s French academy. Mouratoglou, ever the talent scout, spotted Dimitrov at the prestigious junior tournament, Les Petits As, in Tarbes, France.
“He is more solid here now,” Mouratoglou said, tapping his temple. “Much more stable.
“He works a lot, is quite consistent in his habits and has created a very solid base for himself. I don’t think it’s the same thing on the other side of the net. In the important moments, that plays a role.”
Mouratoglou was referring to Kyrgios, a 22-year-old Australian who continues to resist hiring a full-time coach after working intermittently with the former French star Sebastien Grosjean last year.
Matt Reid, Kyrgios’s friend and doubles partner here, has been playing the coaching role at the Australian Open, and Kyrgios is also in close contact with Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian Davis Cup captain, who is, after coming briefly out of retirement, into the quarterfinals of men’s doubles with Sam Groth.
Kyrgios continues to train and play his way, which seldom means the most consistent way.
“His personality is so different to many of us who have played the game before,” said Hewitt, an analyst for Australia’s Seven Network during Sunday night’s match. “You see him sometimes talking to himself under his breath between first and second serves. I wouldn’t have been able to personally concentrate.”
You saw Kyrgios doing a whole lot more than that on Sunday: bantering with his box, complaining loudly about having a racket with the wrong string tension, turning routine shots into more difficult ones and difficult shots into routine ones.
But Kyrgios, who beat Dimitrov on his way to the Brisbane title a few weeks ago, looked much more settled than he did last January. In winning three matches at the Australian Open, he has already won more Grand Slam singles matches in 2018 than he won in all of 2017.
“I lost tonight to one of the best players in the world, went down swinging,” Kyrgios said. “Obviously I feel a lot better this time around. Last year I really didn’t know what I was going to do after the Australian Open. I feel like I have more of a vision and a goal for this year. I think I’m in a good head space.”
If so, that bodes ill for the opposition, even if Kyrgios wished no ill on the friend who had to dig so deep to beat him in the fourth round.
“Sometimes I think he lacks a bit of belief,” Kyrgios said of Dimitrov. “But I think he’s got the game, and he’s proved to everyone that he can win one of these Slams. So I just told him to believe in himself and hopefully he can go all the way.”
To advance, Dimitrov will need to defeat Kyle Edmund, the unseeded British surprise, in the quarterfinals and then either Nadal or Marin Cilic in the semifinals. Dimitrov lost to Nadal in a classic semifinal here last year that lasted nearly five hours. He could face Federer or Djokovic in the final.
That sounds like quite a challenge, but if Dimitrov can shore up his serve and replicate the blend of offense and defense he showed on Sunday night, he has a chance.
Well after midnight, I asked him what he learned about himself in the match.
“That’s a fair question,” he said. “I learned that I can, you know, switch to another gear when I really need it.”