Cracking the Shell

Wednesday, May 08, 2013 /by

We may be in the process of something special, something we get to see in tennis once or twice in a generation—if we’re that lucky. We may be witnessing the emergence of one of “the Chosen,” that select group of players who are not just destined to eclipse their peers, but who have, almost from the get-go, seemed somehow different, somehow privileged and specially favored by destiny or genetics, with that always inexplicable dose of good luck thrown in for good measure.

I’m talking about the emergence—although “coming of age” might be the better term—of Grigor Dimitrov. Tracking him these past few weeks has been like watching the beak of a chick break through an eggshell from the inside. . . tap, tap, tap.

Yesterday, Dimitrov survived a long and, literally, bloody battle with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic to stun the Madrid crowd, and tennis fans worldwide, with a 7-6 (6), 6-7 (8), 6-3 upset. Once again, Dimitrov demonstrated what Djokovic showed us in 2011, and what Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer proved years ago: That if you hit the ball hard enough, close enough to the line, and with sufficient confidence and determination, you can beat anyone. And you can vindicate all those who had suspected that you were among the Chosen.

Dimitrov, who will be 22 in a week, was in serious danger of being written off as a Chosen player as recently as a few weeks ago. There’s a “use by” date on prodigies, and Dimitrov was beginning to push the limit. Although many liked to call him “Baby Federer,” it seemed like “Baby Safin” might end up being the more accurate monicker—the difference being that while Marat Safin earned the No. 1 ranking and won two Grand Slam events, he’s primarily remembered as a charming underachiever.

Dimitrov was barely inside the Top 50 at the start of the year (No. 48), and after he re-kindled hopes among the believers by reaching the Brisbane final (losing to Andy Murray) right off the bat, he appeared to crap out. He stumbled out in the first round of the next three tournaments he played: in Sydney (to Fabio Fognini), the Australian Open (to Julien Benneteau), and Zagreb (to No. 130 Ivo Karlovic).

Worse yet, among those who pay attention, was that Dimitrov was getting less press for his mediocre tennis than for his romance with Maria Sharapova.

But things took a dramatic, upward turn starting at the Rotterdam indoor event, where Dimitrov posted three quality wins before losing in the semifinals to Juan Martin del Potro. Dimitrov then put a first-set scare into Djokovic in the third round of Indian Wells before he bowed out, and he lost again in the third round of Miami, this time to Murray. But two of those three men won the tournament in question, and each one is a Grand Slam champ. Dimitrov was beginning to show a Chosen player’s requisite consistency.

Moving to clay, Dimitrov pushed Nadal to the limit in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo before he succumbed, 6-4 in the third. By then, he was saying all the right things: “I think the toughest expectations are definitely from me. I don't have that pressure from the people around me or what everybody is saying, all this, all that. I think the most important thing is to have a good composure throughout all the weeks.”

Although Dimitrov lost to resurgent Tommy Robredo in the first round of Barcelona last week, he seems to have re-gained his momentum with this upset of Djokovic. The tantalizing question is, where does it go from here? Keep in mind, Federer himself was a slow learner, who didn’t win his first Grand Slam event until he was almost 22—which is right where Dimitrov is now.

It’s been quite some time since a young player embarked on a Grand Slam title quest with significant momentum, with his name on everyone’s lips. That’s always a special moment in tennis, and it’s exactly the type of electric event that’s been missing for a long time now, thanks mainly to the quality of the very top players.

All young players ought to pay heed to what Dimitrov is doing, because there’s another useful takeaway in his recent history. These glimpses and tastes of success seem to be making him more rather than less determined, more eager to play, rather than more likely to wilt under pressure. Something in this young man seems to have clicked, and the call and promise of greatness no longer seems intimidating, or perhaps illusory. It’s inviting, something he seems eager to embrace, as if the champion in him is crying out, “Let’s just get this done!”

In order to punch through in Madrid, Dimitrov may have to beat Murray, but he won’t need to take out both Federer and Nadal, as they’re both in the other, bottom half of the draw. But lest we get too far ahead of ourselves, keep in mind that there have been persistent doubts about Dimitrov’s dedication, if not his talent. His work ethic, if not his athletic ability. His temperament, if not his temper—he’s already been suspended once, years ago, for shoving an official.

Less than a month ago, Ivan Lendl made some remarks that now sound downright prophetic. It was on the heels of matches in which Dimitrov has really pushed higher-ranked players, including Lendl’s protégé, Murray. Lendl said, “If you train for five-hour matches, it gives you a lot of confidence. Take Grigor Dimitrov, who has played some great tennis against Andy and against Novak Djokovic this year. That guy comes out so hot, but we know, and so does Novak, he can’t sustain it. If he could he would be No. 1 in the world.”

Yesterday, Dimitrov cleared the Lendl bar. He demonstrated that he can “sustain it,” and against the individual who is, by definition, the standard against which all other players are measured. All that remains to be seen is if he is, indeed, one of the Chosen.

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