Grigor Dimitrov’s place in the third round of the Australian Open looked in jeopardy at one point but the Bulgarian dug in to survive an almighty scare against Mackenzie McDonald, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 0-6, 8-6.
The third seed went through the motions in a three and a half hour contest on Rod Laver Arena, rarely scaling the heights he did so often last year, but he outlasted the American qualifier to keep his hopes of reaching the second week in Melbourne alive.
He will have the opportunity to avenge his disappointing US Open defeat to Andrey Rublev in the next round, with the Russian prevailing in four sets over Marcos Baghdatis.
All guns blazing
McDonald, marooned outside the top 150 but having impressed in qualifying last week, showed no signs of nerves in his debut on Rod Laver Arena, taking the match to the Bulgarian who looked markedly below par.
Three break points were offered up by Dimitrov in the third game of the opening set and McDonald, punishing each mid-court blooper produced by the Bulgarian, prompted an erroneous backhand to confirm an early break.
Dimitrov settled into the set thereafter, but the American maintained his level. The Bulgarian sensed an opportunity in the eighth game, but he squandered a pair of break points and McDonald was allowed to serve for the set. Undisturbed, he took a set lead after 38 minutes.
The problem for the world number three wasn’t so much a failure to construct points effectively, but rather a lack of conviction to finish rallies. At one-all in set two he ought to have done better with a drop volley having stretched McDonald with a neat inside-out approach. His coach Dani Vallverdu looked on in angst.
Dimitrov kept grinding away, however, and he was afforded an opening when McDonald coughed up triple break point in the sixth game. A double-fault followed and the Bulgarian leveled the match shortly after.
Having steadied the ship many anticipated a jog to the finish line from Dimitrov and, after taking the third set in 54 minutes, that appeared to be true.
However, an inexplicable meltdown from the Bulgarian, coupled with McDonald’s nerveless ball-striking, saw a fifth set forced.
Dimitrov had enjoyed little success off his backhand wing all evening and it all turned pear-shaped for the third seed when his forehand went awry alongside it. He was only able to win five points on his own serve in the fourth set and McDonald took full control, handing him an ignominious bagel to set-up a deciding frame.
The clock was ticking towards midnight local time in Melbourne and the tension inside the arena only heightened as both players exchanged service holds.
Dimitrov’s second serve had proved problematic throughout each set but McDonald, although moving with fleet of foot, was unable to build successive points.
The Bulgarian had 0-30 on McDonald’s serve in the twelfth game but the American fought back, before Dimitrov connected with only his second backhand passing shot of the night on McDonald’s very next service game. An untimely double-fault which brought up match point sharpened Dimitrov’s focus and the Bulgarian did not need a second invitation to secure the victory.