Grigor Dimitrov: A Teenager's Pursuit of the Federer Dream

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Grigor Dimitrov: A Teenager's Pursuit of the Federer Dream
Robert Prezioso/Getty Images

It may not seem the most auspicious of moments to appraise the slim, 6-foot-2 Bulgarian standing at No. 69 in the rankings.

Grigor Dimitrov’s match results this year have been, it is true, far from eye-opening—as his 4-8 win-loss record proves.

He fell in the first round of the Dubai 500 in a shower of errors in 64 minutes, though he entered the tournament as a qualifier and lost to a man 53 places above him in rankings, Richard Gasquet.

It was a similar story in Rotterdam—the Bulgarian qualified for the main draw and immediately ran into Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He qualified for the Miami Masters, but this time went out to Sergiy Stakhovsky. Then in Barcelona, it was Juan Monaco.

So, no: not auspicious.

And yet, for many other reasons, now seems just the right time to turn the telescope on the youngest player in the top 100 of men’s tennis, the only teenager in the top 125.

For the eye-catching, elegant 19-year-old—bursting with the confidence of youth—has this week reached his first ATP quarterfinals in Munich.

And even though he was beaten by the 35-ranked Florian Mayer, the young Bulgarian came within touching distance of a semi-final place in a two-and-a-half-hour thriller, 6-7, 6-3, 4-6.

Dimitrov had break points in the first and third sets that he failed to convert, won more points overall, scored more aces and had a higher serve percentage.

It was, in fact, the kind of match that seems to slip through the fingers like silver sand.

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However, the event marked a further step in a Dimitrov year that suggests green shoots are about to burst into flower.

He qualified for the Australian Open and beat the Hamburg champion, Andrey Golubev, in straight sets. He beat the experienced Rainer Schuettler with ease in Houston and, this week, he beat the 25-ranked Marcos Baghdatis, saving two match points in the process.

Since turning pro in 2008, Dimitrov has risen through the ranks with impressive intent. Two years ago, he hovered around 400, last year he broke the 200 barrier and he began 2011 at 105. He has since moved up to 69, and his win this week will add another handful of places.

His declared target for the year—to break into the top 50—therefore takes on less the look of arrogance and more the look of confidence.

And yet this young player seems always to be discussed with an edge of impatience, for such is the hype surrounding Dimitrov that the waiting tennis public has come to expect upsets every time his name appears on the draw sheet.

The media, for their part, urgently await the fulfillment of their assertions that he is the standard-bearer for the next wave of talent.

Dimitrov’s problem—or one of his problems—is the buzz that has surrounded him since he became both Wimbledon and U.S. junior champion just as he turned pro at 16.

The following spring, 2009, he was given a wild card for Rotterdam where he beat Tomas Berdych from a set down and then took Rafael Nadal to three sets.

With another wild-card entry to Queens in London, he lost in the second round to Gilles Simon—No. 7 at the time—by the skin of his teeth in two tie-breakers.

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In between, Dimitrov blew hot and cold, losing more matches than he won, but by the latter half of 2010, he was winning Challenger events right, left and centre: three on the trot in September. Those green shoots have taken time and experience to ripen.

Another reason why expectation may have run ahead of reality is Dimitrov’s own disarming confidence: a self-assurance that comes very close to arrogance. Take the comments from an interview reported in The Telegraph in January.

“I definitely believe I can be the world No. 1…I believe in my abilities, as when I get things right, things happen to me.” And this: “For that to happen, I probably need to win a couple of grand slams, and they are not going to fall from the sky.

”And, when asked about the main strengths of his game: “I can do anything on any surface.”

And here’s where the final problem comes in. Dimitrov’s coach in 2009 was Peter Lundgren, who had coached Roger Federer during the years leading up to the Swiss’s first Wimbledon title.

Lundgren commented that his young charge was more talented than Federer had been at the same age…and the comparison stuck, helped not a little by Dimitrov claiming Federer as his idol and the man on whom he based his game.

That may sound like more arrogance, except that to see Dimitrov play is to believe every word. His tennis does, indeed, come closer in style to his idol's than anyone else on the tour.

Julian Finney/Getty Images
First, the Dimitrov backhand is a single-hander that emanates from a Federer-like sweep back from the chest, and with such whip that the racket-head all but strikes him between the shoulders. The down-the-line top-spin drive—Dimitrov's personal favorite—has the makings of a signature shot.

The serve, too, is delivered from a near identical action to Federer’s. His feet are placed one behind the other, knees bent to unleash like an uncurling whip—and it is already faster than its Swiss template.

The forehand is fast and adaptable across court, down the line and inside out. But the striking feature is Dimitrov’s movement as he delivers it: a pivot off the leading leg, trail leg lifted, in copybook Federer style.

Dimitrov also shows talent at the net, a willingness to come in and use soft wrists to angle shots to both sides. Add to that the odd drop shot, sliced and curving, and it’s as though he has been mentored by the Swiss master himself.

In shot-making, then—in his easy fluidity and loose-limbed style—Dimitrov has many of the qualities that make the Federer game so aesthetically appealing.

But in appearance, too, he has a similar build, posture and coloring, supplemented by the Nike swoosh and the Wilson weapon: There are physical echoes aplenty.

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Despite all these similarities, however, there are a few others worth recording.

Federer, too, was Wimbledon junior champion in the year he turned pro—at 16.

Federer’s early progress was gradual: at Dimitrov’s age, he was just breaking into the top 30.

It was three years after turning pro before Federer won an ATP title—indoors in Milan—and he was nearly 22 before winning his first Major at Wimbledon.

So Dimitrov clearly has time to emulate his role-model, but he also faces competition in achieving his aspirations.

Below him, Ryan Harrison, a year his junior, is already ranked 128. Above him are two men a year his senior: Richard Berankis at 77 and Milos Raonic at 27.

Perhaps this is the cause of the impatience. Dimitrov was forced into the spotlight—much as Richard Gasquet was before him—while the other three honed their young talents on the more shadowy “outside courts.”

Fortunately, the teenager from Bulgaria seems, for now at least, to have the self-belief to manage his Federesque sobriquet.

And we shall just have to be patient a little longer while he comes into full flower.

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