Grigor Dimitrov rolls back the time

The 32-year-old Bulgarian returns to the top-10 after nearly five and half years and has also rehabilitated the one-handed backhand following a brief exile

April 03, 2024 01:00 am | Updated 01:00 am IST

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Getty Images

Ever since Grigor Dimitrov broke out as a teenager by winning the junior Wimbledon and US Open back to back in 2008, he has carried a crushing and frankly unbearable burden. He burst on to the scene playing a style that bore an uncanny similarity to Roger Federer’s, and in no time, he was nicknamed ‘Baby Fed’ and pushed to the front of that imaginary queue of tennis’ next great champions.

Over the next decade and a little more however, as the two travelled the world and crossed paths at many a tournament, they represented two divergent strands. Their game mechanics matched, but not fortunes. If the service motion, fluid on-court movement, the crisp and snappy forehand and the one-handed backhand mirrored each other’s, results were chalk and cheese. Federer raked up more than 100 Tour titles and 20 Slams; Dimitrov barely touched double-digit trophies and didn’t reach a single Major final.

It is only now, well into the third decade of his life and with Federer’s shadow no longer looming large, that the Bulgarian is running his own race. Last week, en route the Miami Masters final, Dimitrov, soon to be 33, came roaring back into the top-10 (No. 9) for the first time since October 2018. And marching in tow was the one-handed backhand — a purist’s last-remaining link to the tennis of yore — which was exiled for the first time in ATP rankings history when Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas slipped out of the top-10 in February.

“Whatever I say will not do justice [to the achievement],” Dimitrov told the press in Miami about the feat. “I’m on a very different path in my life and my career. I kept believing and having faith in myself. When I didn’t, the team around me was constantly pushing me in the right direction. I had very good discipline. My family was by my side, and all the close friends. It’s all love at the end of the day. This is just a cherry on the cake.”

Rising to the top again

This journey of Dimitrov back into the upper echelons of men’s tennis is a story of diligence and rigour. Last May in Geneva, he made it to his first Tour-level final in more than five years and followed it up with semifinal runs at Washington 500 and Shanghai Masters. He ended 2023 on a high, felling Daniil Medvedev and Tsitsipas at the Paris Masters before finishing a worthy runner-up to Novak Djokovic.

At the 2024 season-opener in Brisbane, Dimitrov secured his first trophy since the ATP World Tour Finals way back in 2017. And in Miami, he beat three top-10 players in Hubert Hurkacz, Carlos Alcaraz — for a second straight time — and Alexander Zverev consecutively. The red-hot Italian Jannik Sinner eventually stopped Dimitrov in his tracks, but nobody could deny him his space under the beachside sun, as he conjured the same mystery and magic that had made him a tennis beloved a decade-and-a-half ago.

It was particularly evident against Alcaraz, who appeared to have rediscovered his mojo with the title in Indian Wells — the Spaniard’s first since Wimbledon 2023. But Dimitrov bamboozled the 20-year-old two-time Major champion with a silken, virtuoso display.

“He made me feel like I was 13,” Alcaraz said, with a shake of the head and a wide grin. “You know, it was crazy. I was talking to my team saying that I don’t know what I have to do. I don’t know his weakness. I don’t know anything.”

According to Daniel Vallverdu, one of Dimitrov’s coaches, the key has been a certain stability in results. “Grigor, over the last 12 months, has really been consistent with building his base level and not having many ups and downs,” he told tennis writer Christopher Clarey. “That builds the right groundwork, so when you go into these bigger matches, you trust your base level more and don’t feel you have to overplay.

“In the matches against top-10 players, he’s been a little more aggressive. He’s been utilising his weapons, which are his serve, forehand and variety on the backhand. He’s probably the fittest he’s been in his career and also in a good place mentally.

“He is looking forward to pushing himself for the next few years of his career, because he knows he’s coming to the later stages and wants to put it all on the table,” added Vallverdu, who has coached Grand Slam champions such as Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Juan Martin del Potro in the past.

‘What if’ moment

In a way, Dimitrov’s recent success leads to a kind of counterfactual thinking. When he first made his mark, Federer and Rafael Nadal had established a duopoly at the top, something that soon expanded to a Big Four to include Djokovic and Murray.

Dimitrov beat each of them at least once but his combined win-loss record against the four was 8-41. He was part of that generation which was seemingly gaslighted — albeit unintentionally — by the Big Four into questioning their talent and validity as tennis players.

In Miami, he was asked if he considered himself unlucky to have gone through that era. “Totally the opposite,” Dimitrov said without batting an eyelid. “How often [can] you say you played in an era against the best players and you have beaten them all? It’s great. I loved competing against them, and you can always learn something.

“Through the years, I have had so many quarterfinals, fourth- and third-round matches against them. But that also maybe shaped me to have that mental toughness and do certain things differently at that point in my career. Each one had a very different way of doing things, but they had amazing qualities. I think they are the pioneers. Overall, to have players like that, with such diversity, is going to be rare.”

The churn

Dimitrov’s current stirring of the pot comes at a time when another golden generation is taking shape with Alcaraz and Sinner looking to lead the way. Djokovic is still there, perched at the top of the rankings and set to soon become the oldest World No. 1, surpassing Federer (36y 320d). Dimitrov, incidentally, is the second oldest man in this week’s top-10.

There is every chance that Dimitrov — the present good run notwithstanding — may get ambushed at a time when tennis is increasingly power-driven and relies heavily on explosive athleticism. But the three-time Major semifinalist is determined to be more than just a minor irritant.

“The toughest player I have ever played, at his prime, has been Roger,” Dimitrov said. “At Wimbledon once, I wanted to dig a hole and disappear. I haven’t had that feeling yet against anyone. Personally, it starts to get more interesting now. Like how can I make it more difficult for these guys. Slowly and surely I am starting to understand and learn that. Since I have played against so many different generations, I always had to adapt or learn. At the moment, Jannik is playing outstanding tennis. Can he play better, I don’t know.

“I, for one, also want to thank myself for the work that I have been putting in, for the discipline, for the hard hours, for the pain and for everything that we’ve gone through behind the scenes. You need to embrace and cherish them. Those are things that make you a better person.

“My mom always used to say, ‘before being a great champion you have to be a great person.’ This is the thing I have always focused on since I was a kid. At some point, all the trophies kind of paled in comparison to everything else. That’s why I feel like right now I’m on a very interesting and different path.”

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