LONDON -- At the end of a tournament for the underdog, Grigor Dimitrov proved the exception to the rule as he took the ATP Finals title and his place among the tennis world's superelite.
The first Bulgarian to win the event has seemed to be weighed down by his own potential for much of his career, but he held his nerve Sunday in a tight, 2-hour-30-minute final to beat David Goffin 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.
He ends the year with his first major title and as the world No. 3, but the final favourite will feel comfortable to have scaled the heights of the men's game after finding his feet in tandem with Dani Vallverdu over the last 15 months.
Dimitrov was ranked No. 40 when the coach joined his team last year and the tearful $2.5 million prize money winner paid tribute to Vallerdu and popstar girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger for helping him turn things around.
"With the right set of mind, with the right people, with the right support, things happen," said Dimitrov, who admitted he couldn't imagine achieving such success two years ago. "For me, that period [when I was ranked in the 40s] really helped me a lot. I needed that.
"Those six, seven months that were a complete struggle for me. I appreciate them in a way that, I mean, only yourself if you've been through that you would understand."
Sunday's match could have gone either way after a nervous first set in which the players exchanged a series of breaks. Dimitrov finished it ahead after a 10-minute game on Goffin's shaky early serve gave him five chances to break.
The psychological damage could have been great given the Bulgarian had wiped away his opponent with the loss of only two games last Wednesday in their group game, but it lasted only until midway through the second set, when Goffin broke and went on to level the score.
The match eventually turned decisively in the sixth game of the third set, when a Goffin backhand -- a shot he had played so beautifully at times -- went wide on the second break point to give Dimitrov a 4-2 lead.
It was one error too many from Goffin, who made 88 in the match, and nearly half of them unforced. He'd had to change things up after their round-robin encounter, but his brave all-or-nothing approach wasn't enough against the DImitrov defence, and a late mini-revival failed to save the match.
"After this week I'm a better player mentally," said Goffin, who became one of only six players to beat Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the same tournament on his way to the final. "I proved to myself that I can do it. I'm in the right place, and I deserve to be here in this tournament.
"I'm proud of what I've achieved, even if I'm disappointed about the final. I gave everything. I have no regrets. It was a great week. So, yeah, I think I'm a better player [for it]."
Roger Federer said earlier in the tournament that 'Baby Fed' Dimitrov has become more comfortable in his own skin and calmer about his place in the men's game this year.
The 26-year-old has maybe got stronger, too. He has looked one of the freshest players at these finals and that, combined with his all-round game may have been the key to his success. "Next year will be interesting," he said, preparing to reset and target the Grand Slams.
Both finalists entered new territory regardless of the result, with the title match having two qualified debutants contesting it for the first time.
Alex Corretja was the last player on his qualifying debut to become champion, in 1998, and was among a star-studded crowd that included David Beckham and Sir Patrick Stewart.
But as Dimitrov savoured that one of many firsts by looking forward to a break from the game, Goffin will be in action again next week for Belgium in the Davis Cup final against France.