In tennis terms, it’s verging on sacrilege to compare any player with Roger Federer.
But there has been a buzz about the Wimbledon and US junior champion, the young Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, that is hard to ignore.
The astute organisers at the Aegon tournament in London this week offered the star-in-waiting a wild card and suddenly the British public saw the future—and it was Federer-shaped!
Dimitrov’s match against No. 3 seed Gilles Simon was a close affair that went to two tie breaks. It drew the very best out of the Frenchman—especially on his perfectly-timed forehand—to win this match. Anything less would have handed Dimitrov a famous victory.
But all those watching now know that it is only a matter of time until this awesome Bulgarian talent starts to grace the finals of major tournaments around the world. Just about the time, in fact, that Federer will be ready to hang up his own racket.
It’s hard to move beyond the dark slanting eyes, angular cheekbones and loose, slender build.
It’s even harder to overlook the dark cropped curls bound by a black bandana.
And then it’s impossible to ignore the all-black strip so reminiscent of Federer’s “Vogue” season. There are physical echoes aplenty.
In another piece of déjà vu, Peter Lundgren, who coached Federer during the vital years leading up to his first Wimbledon title, has taken on the coaching duties of Dimitrov since February. What’s more, Lundgren is reported to have said that his new charge is even more talented than his earlier one.
But it’s the tennis itself that delivers the real evidence.
The first shot that hits you between the eyes is Dimitrov’s backhand. This is that rare thing, a single-hander that produces a Federer-like sweep back from the chest, and with such whip that the racket-head all but strikes him between the shoulders. What’s more, he plays perfect slice and down-the-line top spin with equal aptitude.
It is fast, flexible, and effective and could become his signature shot as his game evolves.
Then he is already delivering a serve that is faster than Federer’s, and from a near identical action: feet placed one behind the other and knees sinking into a swaying explosion. Though the variety of spin and direction has still to evolve, the Dimitrov serve has enormous potential.
Move to the forehand. He can direct it across court and inside out. It is fast and adaptable. While it does not yet have the variety of Federer’s killer shot, that will undoubtedly develop.
What is most striking, though, is the body movement as he delivers it: that pivot off the leading leg, trail leg lifted, in copybook Federer style.
Dimitrov is also showing talent at the net, and 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’s been mentored by the Swiss master himself.
Yet on top of this package, Dimitrov has speed, mobility, and eagerness. He runs everything down yet makes fast decisions in his shot-choice.
Are there any weaknesses in this young man?
In all honesty, most of the failings of this 18-year-old can be attributed directly to his age and inexperience.
Dimitrov is 6'2" and still leggy and slightly underdeveloped physically but is growing and has plenty of time to build his upper-body and leg bulk.
If there’s a small question mark about long-term ambitions on a Federer scale, it is the worrying sign of straps around his knees—perhaps a hint of over extension before his body has grown into its mature stature.
While he’s taking many leaves out of the book of his idol Federer, he should maybe also take one out of Rafael Nadal’s.
And as a first step in doing so, he needs to control the excited puppy in him so that he does not over-reach and strain his groin and legs. He slipped alarmingly, and several times, on the grass at Queen's in his eagerness to reach every ball.
Though he also suffers from the occasional miss-hit through this enthusiastic and attacking play, he will learn to rein that in a little. He and his growing band of admirers must remember, though, that these are the very qualities that have made Federer’s game so attractive and charismatic.
Dimitrov is a genuinely exciting player: fluid, energetic, and possessing both creativity and execution in his shot-making. And he would seem, already, to have that combination of intensity and control that Federer, by his own admission, struggled to master until well beyond 18. So perhaps Lundgren is right!
Based on feedback from the BBC correspondents, Dimitrov is also personable, charming, and multilingual. Ring any bells?
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