Grigor Dimitrov: Charming Basel, chasing London and facing Federer again

Grigor Dimitrov is facing an important week at the Swiss Indoors in Basel

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis in Basel

Grigor Dimitrov has more reason than most to hope for a good run among a slew of talented 23-year-olds playing at the Swiss Indoors in Basel this week.

During the late summer of 2014, it looked as though the charismatic Bulgarian would scale his latest hurdle, a place at the ATP World Tour Finals. But as the door closes on qualification and on opportunities to score points, he still finds himself tantalizingly close.

It’s been a few years since Dimitrov was hailed as a ‘star of the future’. He won the junior Wimbledon title in 2008, followed it with the junior US Open, and his rangy, all-court game, full of variety, touch and panache, began almost immediately to draw comparisons with that of Roger Federer—though he has grown more than a little weary of such suggestions.

The flowering of the Bulgarian was steady but sure as he grew into his tall, wiry frame and his prolific skills. One of his biggest breakthroughs came 12 months ago with his first title in Stockholm. And although he fell one place short of repeating it last weekend, losing to Tomas Berdych in the final, he has continued his year-on-year improvement in titles, Grand Slam success and rankings.

2014 started with his first Major quarter-final in Australia, he went on to win his first ATP 500 in Acapulco, his first clay tournament in Bucharest, his first grass tournament at Queen’s, and reached his first Masters semi-finals—two of them back-to-back—on Rome’s clay and Toronto’s hard courts.

Along the way, he also made the semis of Wimbledon, beating defending champion Andy Murray before losing in four sets to eventual champion Novak Djokovic.

It all took him from 23 in the rankings at the start of the year, through the top-20 barrier for the first time, and on into the top eight. He was making a case for being the youngest man to reach the World Tour Finals since Juan Martin del Potro did it in 2008—and he is still the youngest man in the top 30—but he slipped during the autumn to a current No11 in the Race.

So Dimitrov came to Basel, where he reached the quarter-finals in the last two years, 330 points adrift of the man holding the vital eighth spot, Murray. And there are two more men ahead of him, as well: David Ferrer and Milos Raonic.

The good news is that Ferrer and Murray are in the same situation as he—needing to reach at least the semi-finals in Valencia to add points. The bad news is that fellow 23-year-old Raonic can add points for each match he wins in Basel, thus widening the gap just a fraction more.

The draw certainly hasn’t done Dimitrov any favours. First he played one of the biggest young talents to burst on the scene this year—rather as Dimitrov himself did five years ago—the tall, exciting 17-year-old Alexander Zverev, who reached his first main-tour semi this summer. Dimitrov faced 14 break points, saved 11 of them, and came back from a set down to eventually earn the win, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2.

Then he faced another tall, powerful young player who made his own long-promised break-through last year, Vasek Pospisil. Age 24, he rose to No25 at the end of 2013 having reached the semis of his home Masters in Montreal. Pospisil quickly lost ground with injury, falling at the first hurdle in eight straight tournaments. But a doubles title at Wimbledon and a singles final in Washington affirmed a return to fitness, and he took Federer to three sets in Cincinnati.

In a tricky twist of the Basel draw, Dimitrov and Pospisil competed for a second chance to meet Federer in Basel: last year they lost to him in the quarters and semis respectively. Dimitrov sailed through the Pospisil test, 6-2, 6-2, to run the Federer gauntlet alone, and he relished the chance: “Happy with the way I played today, but the real test is tomorrow.

“I just want to come out there, see what I have learned in all those months: I just want to be out there and play my game.”

Dimitrov’s mettle, then, is being sorely tested, but his game is one of constant evolution and improvement, from his swinging serve, to his one-handed backhand, to his movement and endurance.

Federer himself talked of the mountain the next generation faces in making it to the climax of the season: “I think the top four were always somewhat going to make it and then behind that you always have the next group of players—as in Berdych and Tsonga or Ferrer and other guys—who were basically shutting it down for the rest…

“The window’s small, and you really need something major during the year or very consistent play, which sometimes doesn’t get rewarded enough if you play quarters or semis… Quarters don’t bring you any points almost, and when you are ranked outside the top eight at the beginning of the year, you face the top four guys in the quarters usually early on in the event, which then can give you some quarter losses without playing poorly.

“I think that’s why it’s hard to get in but this year they are definitely showing signs—like [Kei] Nishikori—and maybe a second one, which would be very exciting.”

Dimitrov has started to find that important consistency—to the extent that his stats this year make very positive reading, whatever the surface, whatever the level of event. He has even claimed four top-10 wins: twice over Murray, and once against Stan Wawrinka and Berdych.

But he has no intention of letting his hopes run away with him.

“It’s in the back of your head, but there’s no point in thinking about it. I had a great year anyway and I don’t want to spoil that moment. If I don’t go, I don’t go. Hopefully it’s not going to be my last year. In a way, I’m hoping that 2015 will be even better for me, and start cracking the really big tournaments—that to me is the most important thing. Of course it would be the cherry on the cake to get there considering where I was 12 months ago, so….”

He laughed, as he seemed to do throughout the conversation: “I don’t know… I haven’t calculated points too much, but if I go, I go. If not? More rest for me!”

To be realistic, his chances of London are beginning to look slim this year. But he has time and talent on his side—and along the way, he is charming more and more tennis fans not just with the winning style of tennis but with the winning style of personality too.

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