Two things were certain before the blockbuster Monte-Carlo Masters semi-finals got under way.
There would be an unseeded man facing off against one of the top three seeds in the draw for the title come Easter Sunday.
And all four in the final quartet would be digging very deep into their physical and mental resources if they were to reach that final, let alone win the title.
In the top half, the 22-year-old Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, ranked just 46, was playing in his first ever Masters semi-final, and had earned that place via some impressive, athletic, passionate performances, starting with world No1 Novak Djokovic, then Marrakech champion David Goffin, and finally Indian Wells champion Taylor Fritz.
Worth remembering, too, was that the Spaniard had produced a strong run to reach the French Open quarter-finals less than a year ago.
But then the 30-year-old Grigor Dimitrov, a former world No3 after winning a Masters title and the ATP Finals in 2017, was ranked 29, and had also come through some severe tests: He beat three seeds, including No4 Casper Ruud, and former Monte-Carlo runner-up Dusan Lajovic to reach the semis via a third-set tie-break against Hubert Hurkacz.
The ever-popular Bulgarian had struggled to build on that 2017 form, making just one final since, in Rotterdam more than four years ago. Now with Covid infection and back spasms behind him, it seemed, he was making an impression once more. He had only played Davidovich Fokina once before, though, a loss on Rome’s clay last summer.
The second semi brought together No2 seed Alexander Zverev and No3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, the former with three clay-court Masters title to his name—but not in Monte-Carlo—and the latter the defending champion.
Certainly two of the best and brightest young players on the tour, both with career-highs of No3, both with ATP Finals titles, both finalists at a Major, and while Zverev, the marginally older at 24, had more Masters titles, Tsitsipas had the advantage, 6-3 in this already-bristling rivalry. However, each of their past two meetings went the distance in 2021, with Tsitsipas winning a five-set semi-final at the French Open, and Zverev taking a third-set tie-break in the semis of the Cincinnati Masters.
Each of them had endured long, arduous, comeback wins to get to this 10th meeting, Zverev needing well over three hours to beat Jannik Sinner, Tsitsipas coming back from 0-4 down in the decider against Diego Schwartzman.
So every hour of recovery time would be valuable, and the young seeds played the second singles semi.
First, though, Dimitrov and Davidovich Fokina embarked on yet another marathon contest. The Bulgarian got off to a strong start on serve, as expected as the tournament leader in first-serve points won and in service games won. However, he was facing the man who led the tournament in return games won, and that was on full show in the third game. The Spaniard hammered back returns with pace and to wide trajectories, and it drew a double fault from the Bulgarian on break point.
Davidovich Fokina, though, is certainly no one-trick pony, and a killer drop-shot winner consolidated the hold, 3-1. He continued, as he has all tournament, to power the ball through the court, throw in changes of direction, break things up with the odd drop shot, and all the while running like a sprinter in defence. In comparison, Dimitrov looked a little flat, a little out of ideas, and was down a set in around 40 minutes.
The tables turned at the start of the second set, with Dimitrov taking control to break in the second game, and then making the most of his single-handed volley skills, up to nine from 11 already. However, his previously strong serving stats were on the slide, another double fault offering up break-back point, and he fired a forehand wide: back on serve.
And it went from bad to worse, with Dimitrov looking a mentally fatigued, making errors, his serve not up to scratch. Meanwhile, Davidovich Fokina seemed full of energy, strode around the court between points, and broke again to lead 3-2. He went on to hold to love for 5-3, throwing down the gauntlet to Dimitrov.
Now the Bulgarian responded with more aggressive, forward-moving finishes, up to 13/16 at the net, forcing the Spaniard to serve out the win. The packed stadium roared, whether in encouragement to Dimitrov to break for the fight back, or encouragement for Davidovich Fokina to hold for his first Masters final.
However, the pressure told on the Spaniard, 0-40, and a wild forehand offered up the break: 5-5. The next time he served, it was to save the set, and regained his composure, pounded a couple of forehand winners, and held to love with a roar. They went to a tie-break.
There, it was Dimitrov who produced the goods again, despite his first serve being down to 50 percent. The Spaniard made a couple of errors, and the experience of the Bulgarian showed: 7-6(2).
Back onto the watered court for a record 27th three-setter this week, and Dimitrov immediately earned a break point with his best backhand winner of the match, only to blow it with a volley error. He earned a third chance with another backhand winner, and this time forced the error to break.
A marathon third game of eight deuces, four break chances, and 13 minutes’ duration had it all, including boos as the Spaniard served under-arm mid-way through. But Davidovich Fokina forced a gutsy hold, took some pain killers, turned the pressure onto Dimitrov—and broke: 2-2.
The momentum continued with the Spaniard as Dimitrov’s focus evaporated, and he was broken again. Davidovich Fokina continued to weave his all-court power to serve for the match, and this time made no mistake, 6-3, to reach his first ever tour final.
The Spaniard is now looking at a surge in the ranks inside the top 30 for the first time. With the title, it could be the top 20. However, Tsitsipas would have something to say about that scenario.
Tsitsipas began as the more consistent man against Zverev, and after an exchange of breaks, he served the better, and broke again to lead, 5-2. Zverev still managed to break back, but his unforced errors kept opening the door, and Tsitsipas broke again for the set, 6-4.
It remained even through the first few games in the second set, but the Tsitsipas tactics, breaking rhythm, and slotting passes, finally broke down the German, and he broke for 4-2. He swung his shots to wide angles, closed down the net, consolidated for 5-2. One more game, pressuring Zverev’s serve again, the Greek broke for set and match, 6-2, in one of the shortest matches of the week, an hour and a quarter.
So Tsitsipas is on track for the defence of his title, but will be wary of Davidovich Fokina, who took him to three punishing sets in Rotterdam in February. And both men have a lot at stake: a first title in almost a year for the Greek, a first title, full stop, for the Spaniard. It’s an intriguing prospect.
Source: Sport Review