Rotterdam 2018: Onwards and upwards for Grigor Dimitrov after career-best season

Grigor Dimitrov is hoping to build on his successful 2017 as he prepares to compete at the Rotterdam Open

grigor dimitrov
Grigor Dimitrov won the ATP Finals last year Photo: Marianne Bevis

It is almost a decade since a slight young Bulgarian, the 16-year-old Grigor Dimitrov, arrived in Rotterdam for the first time, expecting to play the qualifiers. But instead, the Wimbledon junior champion was about to be catapulted into the limelight at the Ahoy Arena: a wild card into the 2009 main draw.

Dimitrov had played and lost only one main-court match before—that happened to be in the Netherlands, too, on the grass of s-Hertogenbosch. But this would be another level: His first match was against Tomas Berdych, and Dimitrov won in three hard sets.

In truth, the draw was not kind to the youngster. He next played Rafael Nadal, fresh from winning the Australian Open and ranked No1 in the world. But talking ahead of the 45th playing of the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament this weekend, Dimitrov, now the second seed and ranked No4 in Rotterdam, recalled that first time as though it was yesterday.

“I remember I was practising, supposed to play the qualies the next day… and when Richard [Krajicek] told me, I was like wow! Was my first event actually. Next thing you know, I was playing prime-time matches, and ever since then I fell in love with the tournament.

“Against Tomas, I remember thinking, ‘this guy is hitting the ball too hard!’ I was still young, so I was going a bit more for my shots, and little bit more careless, more free for certain shots, and I think I put him off balance a little bit.

“The match against Rafa was pure joy for me. Ever since then, I love playing Rafa and even though I’ve lost 8-10 times against him, I always enjoy coming out on the court against him. It was 3-3 in the third set, long rally, break point for me, and the first time I used the challenge—the ball was out. So I always want to go back and blame it on that. Fortunately, he had just become No1 and won the AO!”

But that first Rotterdam appearance had shown just what quality and flair Dimitrov had at his disposal from the start.

He may have lost 10 matches to Nadal along the way, but he also beat the Spaniard in Beijing, and it has been a rare match where he has not taken Nadal to the limit—including all three matches last year. Few who saw it will forget their five-set thriller in the semis of the Australian Open.

Come 2014, just 23 years old, the popular Bulgarian made the semis at Wimbledon and broke into the top 10, but then he hit some bumpy times, dropped to a ranking of 40 in 2016, before regrouping with renewed confidence and new coach Dani Vallverdu.

Cue a return to the top table, a career-best four titles last year, a first Masters crown in Cincinnati, and the World Tour Finals trophy in London. It all ended in a ranking of No3.

So what has been the impact of such success on the rather less slight 26-year-old Dimitrov? He smiled.

“Myself, I was a little bit surprised the way I ended the year, but physically I felt in such a great position to play and to compete, and all those things came together.

“Of course, you always want to do more, and when you get to that stage, you expect more from yourself. That can be good but at the same time it can be dangerous, because you want to prove to yourself that you can be better, hit those impossible shots.

“And the one thing you should never forget is, never lose respect for the game, if you are 1, 2, 3, whatever rank, you must always have respect for the easy shots and the tough shots, and the process itself. You have still got to be able to love the process and not take anything for granted.

“I think I’ve learned that through the years. Of course you are going to get your ups and downs, and it’s so hard to keep such a level nowadays in any tournament, when the ‘younger’ generation are starting to play really well, and they have nothing to lose against big opponents, on big courts, in primetime matches.”

And of course, as Dimitrov has marshalled his talent through those ups and downs, he has found himself between the glass ceiling of the ‘big four’ and the chasing pack of ‘the Next Gen’. As he put it:

“The dot on your back is becoming a little bit bigger, but that’s what I play tennis for, competing, for the love of the game, to prove myself I can do better.”

He certainly doesn’t have an easy road in Rotterdam this year, not least because he was bumped out of the No1 seeding by the late arrival of Roger Federer as a wild card. Dimitrov is also arriving here with an untested shoulder: He was forced to withdraw from the defence of his Sofia title because of it, but assured the media that he was on the mend, and almost back to full speed on serve.

It so happens that he finds Berdych in his half—though this time separated by several rounds—but rather closer in the draw he has one of those young players with ‘nothing to lose’, the 17-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime. The US Open Junior champion has also been offered a wild card by the astute eye of Krajicek, and will play his first ever main-tour match against the 38-ranked Filip Krajinovic.

Before that, Dimitrov will take on a tricky opening opponent, Yuichi Sugita, who is ranked 41 after winning his first title last year.

Also in this quarter is one of the young players tipped for the top very, 20-year-old Andrey Rublev, who is already ranked 36 and reached the Doha final earlier this year.

In the other half of the draw, Federer, playing for the first time since his Australian Open win, will have to find his indoor form quickly if he is to grab the No1 ranking from Nadal by the week’s end. He needs to reach the semi-finals, and in his way are the likes of Philipp Kohlschreiber, Karen Khachanov and, as early as the quarters, Stan Wawrinka, who has just made the semis in Sofia on his return from knee surgery.

If the Swiss does make the semis, he could face 20-year-old Alexander Zverev, who headed Dimitrov in the ranks until the World Tour Finals, and was another recipient of a wild card here at the age of 17. The following year, also as a wild card, the German teenager reached the quarter-finals. All of which goes to show that Rotterdam’s tournament director knows a thing or two about rising talents.

But while Dimitrov may have taken a little longer than some to prove his credentials, he believes he has much further to go.

“I still believe in myself. I recently started feeling my body is getting into that maturity, and holding up well, and absorbing the hard work, so I’m very positive for the future. I don’t really look at the rankings any more, because I know if I play better and put in the extra effort, the results will come.

“Yes, I’m fortunate [that I haven’t had a lot of injuries], but I want to say, without throwing flowers on myself, I’ve done the work in the gym, I’ve done the core exercise, I’ve never stopped working… I take pride in my work, I think I’ve done the necessary hours, but you are never insured.

“You come out on the court, you start stretching, doing the splits, running for drop shots, anything can happen, but when you play, you don’t really think about those things.”

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