Grigor Dimitrov is not yet a household name to those who do not follow the ATP tour, but the 21-year-old Bulgarian tennis pro may have foreshadowed greatness with a standout performance at the Monte Carlo Masters against mighty Rafael Nadal.
He dismantled No. 10-ranked Janko Tipsarevic in the second round, highlighted by a ridiculous backhand dive that left his opponent shaking his head. He closed out the match in dominating fashion and with little discernible self-adulation.
In the quarterfinals, nobody would have blinked an eye had Dimitrov been crushed by clay king Nadal. After losing a quick first set 6-2, it appeared that Dimitrov had hit the wall. There would be some fine parting gifts and talk of taking the next step, but the match was over, right?
Not Baby Federer
The most unfortunate part of Dimitrov’s career is the unfair label “Baby Federer.” While the moniker was intended to describe his potential talent and skills set, it’s an impossible comparison or standard for any future player. There will never be another Federer, Nadal, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg or Pete Sampras.
The moniker is also a misrepresentation of Dimitrov’s style and strengths. It’s too easy to simply point out that he can be an all-court player with a single-backhand. Rather, his match against Nadal revealed obvious and subtle parts to a potentially exciting championship career that will be an original copy.
There he was on Monte Carlo’s red clay, facing a cavernous deficit against the most intimidating set of circumstances—Nadal seeking nine straight years of titles with only a handful of lost sets in a decade.
Dimitrov locked into Nadal’s patterns with more acute anticipation and purpose. He understood the Spaniard’s gameplan to try and beat down his backhand and open the court for his inside-out forehand. He defended and then retaliated as if clay was his stage and creativity his brand of impressionism.
He had little trouble picking up Nadal’s high topspin, often catching it early and redirecting it with his own offensive strike, more a page out of the Novak Djokovic playbook.
He stepped into the backhand and struck back with power to either corner or with delicate underspin. Sometimes the ball hopped, other times it skimmed and often it streaked. It may already be the most interesting backhand in tennis and one that could launch a thousand articles if it becomes the artisan’s weapon for forging Grand Slam titles.
Not only did Dimitrov’s backhand hold up, but it was an offensive weapon. He forced Nadal to slide more often and face greater pressure to hit deeper and with greater pace. Soon, Nadal was forced into errors and fell into his familiar hiccups of over-topping routine forehands and rolling backhands.
Dimitrov became increasingly relentless. He hustled after Nadal’s best shots, digging, stretching and angling back tough slice to reset, as per the holy requirement of clay-court tennis. There was very little he could not track down and his doggedness flashed the golden footwork requisite for all great champions. Nadal could not hit through the court and put away the bodacious Bulgarian.
How many players have shriveled up after getting blasted in the first set by Nadal? Dimitrov didn’t just survive with a respectable effort, he turned the tables with his own double-break 6-2 set. Talent is one thing, but this was the kind of moxie tennis fans have been waiting to see from young Dimitrov.
All great champions have an aura or swagger about their game. Dimitrov appeared unflappable. He sat at his changeover chair with his own sense of composure. His deportment was not hopeful, but expectant. He was ready to win.
Dimitrov had only played Nadal four years ago, a tough three-set loss at Rotterdam, but he was a quick study by mid-match. He understood when to be the aggressor and whip an impressive forehand winner up the line with Nadal completely unbalanced and unable to respond.
He has a lot of shots to play and is learning when to unload them. Its short term-effects were galvanizing, all the while breathing more confidence into his game. He attacked Nadal with pace and offset this with feathery drop shots, forcing the champion to lumber in too late at net with several failed vertical dashes.
There were a few moments Dimitrov scrunched up his scruffy face, knowing that a little more patience and precision would have allowed him to extend the control he had already earned in the point. He was not merely reacting out of disappointment, but with a scholar’s eagerness to extract the lesson and present his new-found discoveries.
He led 4-3 in the third set before Nadal outlasted a few of Dimitrov’s mistakes and physical cramping. For the Spaniard, relief was evident after surviving 28 Dimitrov winners and 36 unforced errors. For the Bulgarian, victory had escaped, but not without the proof that he has his own presence to win big on the ATP tour.
Monte Carlo could be an aberration or it could be the turning point. Clay-court winners are a special breed of persistent winners, requiring footwork, patience and heart. Dimitrov is showing these qualities to a surprising degree given that his game is well-suited for hard courts and grass. He has explosive shotmaking and could be a force to attack the net, should he develop this further.
This week, Dimitrov must show he can get on a plane, land in another country and not miss a beat in building on his No. 28 world ranking and budding career. The ATP field is deep and talented and a lack of attention or dedication can be costly.
First up at Barcelona will be Spaniard and clay-courter Tommy Robredo. Dimitrov could potentially face Tomas Berdych, followed by other explosive young players Ernests Gulbis or Milos Raonic. None of this figures to be easy, but the journey to greatness must navigate these draws with routine diligence and victories.
There’s also the possibility he could be staring at Nadal in the semifinals. Dimitrov seems like the type who wants this second opportunity.
Dimitrov might also be the golden champion who could demolish the ruling oligarchy. Tennis fans wishing to automatically extrapolate Grand Slams titles for Nadal or Djokovic might have another contender to deal with sooner than foreseen.
Watch out for Dimitrov the First.