A Grigor Dimitrov Moment

Monday, January 17, 2011 /by

Gd The two girls smiled at each other. Then they looked backed at Court 10, at the player in the yellow shirt with the silky one-handed backhand and the very familiar service motion and the easy way with a forehand winner. Then the girls looked at each other again. They smiled again. They were having a Grigor Dimitrov moment.

The Grigor Dimitrov Moment: It sounds like a bad lounge-band name. I can see it now: A tall man with a receding hairline and a black goatee is hunched over a saxophone in a half-empty basement bar in Philly or Prague. But no, a Dimitrov Moment is what we got in Melbourne on Monday. In front of those two smitten girls, as well as a fair number of tennis cognescenti, the 19-year-old Bulgarian won his first match at a Grand Slam by routing Andrey Golubev, an otherwise perfectly respectable pro who is currently ranked No. 36 in the world. It wasn’t just that Dimitrov beat Golubev like a drum, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2; it’s that he outclassed him. He was the elegant tennis aristocrat slumming it for a few moments with the clumsy hoi polloi.

Players win their first matches at Grand Slams all the time, of course. But Dimitrov hasn’t been just another player since 2008. That year he won junior Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back to back, turned pro, and was promptly pushed into the pole position among the contenders for Next Big Tennis Thing.

And that’s as far as he got until today. The two years since Dimitrov’s junior triumphs have been hard ones. He was lost on the Challenger circuit, playing in Thailand one week and Geneva the next. He dropped out of the Top 200. The early talk of a touring entourage faded. When I spoke to him by phone from somewhere between Katmandu and Timbuktu last year, he sounded humbled. “I just have to keep going and hope it turns around,” he said.

It turned around in 2010. Dimitrov began working with former doubles standout Peter McNamara of Australia. He won six Challengers. He moved into the Top 200, then the Top 150, then up to 105, which is where he started this tournament. He’s not talking about hopes anymore; he’s talking about goals. Big goals.

“We’re aiming high," Dimitrov said today. "We want to be in the Top 40 by the end of the year." Maybe he’ll get the old entourage together again, too.

What changed? Nothing too specific or miraculous, it seems. “I’m more mature on court now,” Dimitrov said. “I have to accept it didn’t come as fast. I know I have to take it step by step.”

But the new confidence hasn’t vanquished the old frustration just yet. Dimitrov shoved an umpire at a Challenger in Helsinki last month, but was not suspended.

“It’s something that happened,” said Dimitrov, who described himself as “not an easy person” all the time. “It will never happen again.”

The talent, the temper, the early professional disappointment. Does this lineup remind you of someone else? Yes, Dimitrov appears to be taking a page or two from Roger Federer. Make that three or four or five pages. The Bulgarian says Federer is his hero, and he’s clearly spent a good deal of time watching him play.

The similarities in their games are uncanny. The relaxed start and sudden upward burst on the serve. The long extension on the backhand, and the extra, easy snap of topspin on the forehand. Dimitrov even sets up for his backhand the same way as Federer. Both of them, when they have the time, turn their bodies to the net and place their feet far apart for balance.

It’s one thing to copy the mechanics. It’s another to get the results—to catch the spirit rather than just the letter of the Federer law. Dimitrov does that too, and he did it today to devastating effect. Both Dimitrov and Federer seem to play farther from their torsos than their opponents, with a sweep to their strokes that lets them get more of their arms and bodies into their shots—they get out their own way. Golubev was handcuffed by Dimitrov’s inside-out forehand, as well as his down the line backhand. At 4-2 in the third set, Dimitrov hit three returns of serve that landed on the baseline, and which Golubev dumped into the net. After the last one, Golubev shrugged as if to say, “Forget it. Nothing I can do about that. Get me out of here.”

Dimitrov moves with something of the ease of Federer, and as I said, his way of playing has that loose, high-class Federer sheen (whether he's actually as fast is yet to be determined). This begs the question: Did Dimitrov borrow some of his talent from Federer? Or did his mimicry hold him back from developing what would have been his own genius? You can’t just  move like Federer because you want to.

Would the younger man have been as good—or maybe better—if he had never seen the older man play? Would we all be better if we could make our games as close to Federer’s as possible? It’s one thing to copy a player’s general style. Bjorn Borg launched a million baseliners. It’s another to copy—or internalize; Dimitrov understandably doesn’t like the copycat label—the idiosyncrasies of one man’s genius. John McEnroe had no imitators.

None of this means the Bulgarian is any kind of genius; Frank Dancevic's game is also reminiscent of Federer's, and he's never cracked the Top 20. What matters for tennis fans is this: If you like to watch Roger Federer play, you’re going to like to watch Grigor Dimitrov. If, like me, you love Federer’s game but have gotten tired of his Sire Jacket lordliness over the years, you’ll like him even more, because it’s going to be a while before Dimitrov lords it over anyone. I spent a set at Court 10 watching Dimitrov-Golubev today, long enough to see that it wasn’t going to be a competitive match. So I traipsed to the other side of Melbourne Park, which is not around the corner, to watch some of Victor Troicki, another guy I’m interested this season. Or at least I thought I was interested in him. Compared to Dimitrov, Troicki’s game seemed limited and earthbound. So I got up and made the trek back to Court 10, just for the pleasure of seeing the kid play.

The two girls were there, and they were still smiling. So was Dimitrov. When he won the last point, he pumped his fist and flashed a wide grin. Then he looked at his coaches and smiled some more. He couldn’t stop smiling. He’d won a Grand Slam match. It was a Grigor Dimitrov moment to savor.

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