Roger Federer remembers the first time he met Grigor Dimitrov on a tennis court. It was in Madrid, an indoor practice session, and Dimitrov was 16. It was like looking in the mirror -- "Fed" and "Baby Fed" as Dimitrov came to be known.
"I couldn't believe how he was playing, how similar he looked to me," Federer said Monday. "I said, 'Oh my God,' like it's crazy. But you can see the differences clearly now. He's had his own great career."
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The 11th-ranked, 23-year-old Bulgarian has yet to win a major, though, so he has a ways to go to catch up with Federer's 17 Grand Slam singles titles. Dimitrov also has yet to officially subdue Federer in head-to-head play, having met three times in tournaments.
But Dimitrov flashed his considerable skills Monday night and finally beat the 33-year-old Swiss star, albeit in an exhibition. Dimitrov defeated Federer, 6-2, 1-6, 7-5, in front of 14,894 at Madison Square Garden watching this eighth annual BNP Paribas Showdown, which was part of the third annual World Tennis Day festivities.
"Of course, it was just an exhibition, but it was really just more important to get out there and embrace the atmosphere for not only me, but also the opponent I'm playing against," said Dimitrov, who also is known as Maria Sharapova's significant other. "At the end of the day, I'm playing against Roger and I have so much respect for him. I felt like I had a lot of fun."
It was 1-1 in the third set and then the second-ranked Federer started hearing the cheers for his shot-making work on the way to breaking serve and taking the lead. Federer went up 3-1 after twice going to deuce. But Dimitrov fought back breaking serve to tie it at 3 and then holding to go up a game. Then Federer held to tie it at 4.
Federer came back from 0-40 to get to deuce in the following game only to lose when he hit a return wide making it 5-4 Dimitrov. Federer again tied it, but Dimitrov hit a winner for a 6-5 lead. Federer was broken in the following game losing the match when he belted a return long.
"I think he did really well to turn the match around," Federer said. "Credit to him, because there's a little pressure. First time at the Garden, I think he did very well."
Sabatini tops Seles
Hall of Famers Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini were on the Garden court in a prelim, staging a 25th anniversary rematch of the WTA Tour final that Seles won in five sets at MSG. They are now a couple of 40-something retirees.
Sabatini ended up having the happier anniversary, winning 8-5 in a pro set.
So did it make up for 1990?
"Well now I can say yes," Sabatini said with a smile. "Before I wasn't sure."