Grigor Dimitrov finally faces Roger Federer – but aims to be his own man
Grigor Dimitrov achieves two ambitions in the space of a week as he gears up for his Basel quarter-final against Roger Federer
October 2013 will long live in the memory of the 22-year-old Grigor Dimitrov. For in the space of a single week, he achieved two ambitions.
The first was to win his first ATP title—and he did so in exhilarating style against world No3 David Ferrer. The second was a long-anticipated meeting with the man who featured so large in his early tennis development, Roger Federer.
As if that was not enough, Dimitrov would play the him in his home city, his home tournament, where Federer had won the title five times—and crucially, where Federer was trying to qualify for the World Tour Finals.
And when the young Bulgarian faced the media in the Swiss Indoors headquarters, it was of Federer that everyone wanted to speak—and the reason was simple.
For it is not simply that Dimitrov plays very fine tennis, though his pedigree shone through in 2008 with junior titles from both Wimbledon and the US Open at just gone 17. No, it is something more.
When the slight 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 Federer during the years leading up to the Swiss star’s first Wimbledon title commented that his new 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. He still does:
“Of course I was looking up to a lot these guys, Sampras and also the one-handers in the game. And most of all, when Roger was coming up, he was the one to watch, coming to the peak of his career. Of course I’ve always had a lot of admiration for what he is.”
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.
As a wild card at Rotterdam earlier that year, he beat Tomas Berdych, and then he took 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.
It all served to seal 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, and his down-the-line backhand drive had all the makings of a signature shot. He had talent at the net, too, with the touch to angle shots to both sides, and the same variety of play that makes Federer’s tennis so aesthetically appealing.
In that first London match, Dimitrov beat the top-100 Spaniard Ivan Navarro and went on to take Simon to two tiebreakers in the second round. However, his progress was slowed by an injury that forced him to retire in the first round at Wimbledon after winning the first set against the 39-ranked Igor Kunitsyn, and he returned to the Challengers circuit—but the spell had been cast.
By the latter half of 2010, Dimitrov was winning Challenger events right, left and centre: three on the trot in September. He was now on the brink of a top-100.
In early 2011, he was still having to qualify for main tour events, but did so time and again—subsequently losing to higher ranked players. He seemed poised for his next step forward and just before his 20th birthday, he beat No25, Marcos Baghdatis, to take reach a first quarter-final in Munich.
But it was back on grass that the buzz started anew with a significant breakthrough, this time on Wimbledon’s No1 court in one of the thrillers of the tournament.
His second-round match 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 went on to beat Federer for a place in the semi-finals. But Dimitrov had made the biggest impression of his career.
Yet he continued to blow hot and cold, swinging between brilliance and frustrating losses. Still young, still maturing physically, still trying to mesh his many skills into some consistency, talk of being the standard-bearer for the next generation—and comparisons with Federer—became less frequent as a growing band of contemporaries began to overtake him.
He stalled outside the top 50 and slipped outside the top 100 in early 2012. Meanwhile, Milos Raonic and Jerzy Janowicz, the same age, both beat him into the top 20 and beyond.
However, 2013 has seen many components finally click into place. Dimitrov’s search for the right mentor and coach took him from Lundgren, via Peter MacNamara and Patrick Mouratoglou, back to Sweden and the Magnus Norman academy in Stockholm at the start of this season.
Now, Dimitrov has improved in both fitness and movement—and he is still looking for a little something extra with the recent recruitment of Roger Rasheed—and it may be no coincidence that he seems to have found contentment in his personal life t,oo—with another professional tennis player, Maria Sharapova.
He has notched up a first final in Brisbane, taken Nadal to three sets in Monte Carlo, beaten No1 Novak Djokovic in Madrid, and arrived in Basel with his first title, looking and sounding ready for anything.
Ahead of his first meeting with Federer, he even showed a new calmness about the burden of such expectation and all those long-standing comparisons:
“Of course, I’m not going to hide my excitement. I think it’s a great match-up.
First time playing against him, and what better way to play him than in his home town?
“I hope [the crowd] are going to see the differences [rather than the similarities]. It’s nice to hear it, but the way I’m playing and the way I want to be recognised on the tour or not is to be in my own image.”
In Rotterdam, in fact, they had the chance to size each other up, and for fans of both to see the similarities—and differences. He remembered the occasion:
“I’m sure it’s going to be a funny feeling—hopefully we won’t smile at each other. What can I say? I’ve always wanted to play him, whether it’s practice or a match. Tomorrow’s one of these days that you actually have to face him…and it’s going to be serious from both ends.”
Yes, the similarities are strong, though gone are the little give-aways of the 17-year-old “fan” who first played at Queen’s: The hair is now cropped short, the bandana discarded.
And while Dimitrov still wields the trademark Wilson racket with just one right arm, his backhand is a far wider sweep: His racket almost cracks the back of his head. His forehand does not have the same variety as Federer’s—yet—and his movement is less fluid, less effortless, but is now super-quick around all parts of the court. And when it comes to body language between points, his movement is more animated, more urgent than the calm Federer saunter.
Yet watch Dimitrov’s service stance, his eagerness to come to the net, his determined defence from the back of the court, his touch on volley and drop shot, and the comparisons make for heady viewing.
And in one other no less important quality, he has determined to follow Federer’s example:
“I have respect for him on and off the court, for sure. That’s not something I’m going to deny…I think it’s always about respect and fair play, that’s really important. But if you want to go on court, if you want to do something right and go big and fight for your goals, you’ve really got put all these things aside and do what you are taught to do and what you want to do whoever is on the other side.”
He is articulate and cheerful with the media, genuine and accessible with the fans, and clearly can’t get enough of his sport—nor of playing it better with every day:
“I just never stop working. I know the season is long, and there are more matches at the end of the year, but I think that’s the point: You’ve got to improve yourself on a daily basis. It’s not just when you have the off season that you’ve got to push hard for six weeks… I still feel that I need to work a lot, and that keeps me hungry and able to perform.”
“But I think it is important to set goals in the moment whether it is the Australian Open—there I have a goal—or when I come to Europe. But the other thing is to stay really healthy and be able to work on a daily basis. It’s important to be very patient and to take things in the moment.”
He faces his next goal in Basel and, popular as he is, the 32-year-old on the other side of the net will undoubtedly have most of the support. And even about that, Dimitrov is cheerful and pragmatic:
“I’ve got to have a good night’s sleep, and rest well, and come out on the court with a big smile.”
Basel 2013 will be remembered for what promised to be a very special meeting.