One to watch: the rise and rise of Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov
He has the genes of sporting parents, was tutored by Peter Lundgren and has been likened to Roger Federer
Grigor Dimitrov. He’s the kind of player who just draws the eye.
It’s not simply that he plays tennis extremely well, though his pedigree shone through in 2008 with junior titles from both Wimbledon and the US Open at just gone 17. No, it’s something more.
When the slight, still-growing teenager was given his first wild card for Queen’s in 2009, there was already a buzz about this new talent, encouraged not a little by the bold words of his then coach, Peter Lundgren.
For the man who had coached Roger Federer during the years leading up to the Swiss star’s first Wimbledon title commented that his young charge was more talented than Federer had been at the same age ““ and the comparison stuck.
As if to fan the flames, Dimitrov also claimed Federer as both his idol and the man on whom he based his game.
Allusions to Federer aside, by the time Dimitrov””barely advanced beyond the Futures circuit””walked onto the plush turf of Queen’s that first time, he was making waves.
A wild card to Rotterdam earlier in the year had seen him beat Tomas Berdych and then take Rafael Nadal to three sets. In Marseille, he took world No8 Gilles Simon to three sets and in his first Davis Cup tie, still only 17, he won two gruelling singles rubbers that included four tiebreakers and nine sets.
A quarter-final finish at Nottingham sealed Dimitrov’s Queen’s place and, sure enough, his style of play did suggest a new Federer in the making.
The Dimitrov backhand is a single-hander that sweeps back with such whip that the racket-head all but strikes him between the shoulders.
His down-the-line backhand drive””Dimitrov’s personal favorite””has all the makings of a signature shot and his forehand is fast and varied across court, down the line and inside out.
He has talent at the net too, with the touch to angle shots to both sides, and the same fluidity of movement that makes the Federer game so aesthetically appealing.
In that first grass match, Dimitrov beat the top-100 Spaniard Ivan Navarro and went on to take Simon to two tiebreakers in the second round.
His progress was then slowed by an injury that forced him to retire in the first round at Wimbledon and he returned to the proving ground of the Futures tour: but the spell had been cast.
By the latter half of 2010, Dimitrov was winning Challenger events left, right and centre ““ three on the trot in September. And he was rising through the ranks with impressive speed, from 342 after that Queen’s debut to 106 by the end of 2010.
At the start of 2011, when he qualified for the Australian Open and then beat No38 Andrey Golubev in the first round, Dimitrov seemed poised for his next breakthrough, yet his results blew hot and cold.
The 19-year-old qualified with ease for the 500 events at Dubai and Rotterdam but then lost in the first rounds. However, now with an improved ranking of 70, most of those losses were to more experienced, more highly-ranked men.
In Dubai, he fell to Richard Gasquet in a shower of errors and 64 minutes. In Rotterdam, he ran into Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. After qualifying for the Miami Masters, he went out to Sergiy Stakhovsky and in Barcelona, it was a first-round loss to Juan Monaco.
But just before his 20th birthday Dimitrov beat No25, Marcos Baghdatis, to take his place in a first ATP quarter-final in Munich. He went on to lose to the 35-ranked Florian Mayer but he came within touching distance of the semi-final in a two-and-a-half-hour three-set thriller.
Most recently, on the grass that suits his game so well, Dimitrov reached the semis at Eastbourne and made his next significant breakthrough ““ this time on Wimbledon’s No1 court in one of the thrillers of the tournament.
His second-round match once again pitted the Bulgarian against Tsonga in a four-set, three-and-a-half-hour contest of rain-delays, break points, lost leads and all-court athleticism.
Tsonga survived and took his resurgent game on to beat Federer for a place in the semi-finals. But Dimitrov had made the biggest impression of his career.
Yet this young player seems still to be discussed with an edge of impatience. For such is the expectation surrounding Dimitrov that the tennis public has come to expect upsets every time his name appears on the draw sheet, urgently awaiting proof that he is the standard-bearer for the next generation.
Another reason why expectation may have run ahead of reality is Dimitrov’s own disarming confidence ““ a self-assurance that sometimes sails close to arrogance.
Take his comments in an interview reported by the Telegraph in January: “I definitely believe I can be the world No1. I believe in my abilities, as when I get things right, things happen to me.”
Dimitrov is now benefitting from the wise hand of the hugely experienced Peter McNamara, and to see the relationship in action, on an outside Wimbledon court during a first-round doubles match, is to watch the learning process take place as if by osmosis. Smiles and encouragement on one side, eye-contact and attentiveness on the other.
It is worth remembering too that Dimitrov’s role model, Federer, progressed steadily towards the top. He was almost 21 before winning his first Masters, almost 22 before his first Slam.
However Dimitrov, until Wimbledon the youngest man in the top 100, has a growing band of contemporaries who are also starting to make names for themselves.
Ryan Harrison, a year his junior, is on the verge of top-100 status at 101. Milos Raonic, just a few months older than Dimitrov, is already at 26, though his extraordinary surge up the rankings this year has been brought to an untimely halt by hip surgery.
And Dimitrov’s hold on the youngest top-100 player title has now been usurped by the 18-year-old Bernard Tomic. The Australian won seven matches at Wimbledon to earn a quarter-final place against Novak Djokovic, and even won a set from the eventual champion.
This, perhaps, is one of the reasons for impatience. Dimitrov has been the one in the spotlight””much as Gasquet was before him””from the moment his name was linked with Federer’s.
Meanwhile, his contemporaries have honed their growing talents in the wings and now look just as capable of spearheading tennis’s new wave.
But this young man from Bulgaria””grown taller since that Queen’s debut, grown calmer in the hands of McNamara, grown more experienced against major players such as Tsonga””is now surely within touching distance of his first title and, very probably, a place in the top 20 before he turns 21.