Dancing Around the Flame

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

The moment when any organism becomes all that it is meant to be is always a pleasure to behold. Think of an apple, so heavy and ripe that next kiss of a breeze will send it falling to the earth with a pleasant “thunk.” Or regard the mayfly, drifting on the surface of a clear stream as its nymphal shuck breaks open to liberate the gorgeous, tiny creature inside. Or consider Ernest Hemingway, adding the period to the final sentence of his first great novel, The Sun Also Rises.

Could it be that Grigor Dimitrov, often referred to as “Baby Fed”—and now ranked No. 13 in the world—is on the cusp of just such a moment? A much-heralded prodigy for about five years now, the 23-year-old is facing what might be called a breakout moment at Wimbledon. If it isn’t exactly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (Stan Wawrinka won his first Grand Slam tournament a few months ago at age 28), a resounding victory by Dimitrov would suggest that he’s not just a potential blue-chip player slowly coming into his own, but a truly special athlete worth every bit of ink spent on him over the years.

But whoa, you say. He’s already 23—an age at which the use-by date of prodigy has passed. That’s true; the majority of players who won at least six Grand Slams in the Open era already had a few by Dimitrov’s age. At the same, Federer was almost 22 when he bagged his first major, at Wimbledon, and Andy Murray was 25 when he finally won a big one.

And true, Murray had established himself among the elite well before he punched through the Grand Slam gates at the 2012 U.S. Open. He did it by winning a slew of Masters 1000 titles, and thus far Dimitrov has been to just one Masters semifinal.

But winning a Grand Slam event remains a feat of a higher order of magnitude. It calls for something more, or perhaps something different. It also calls for a little luck. Can Dimitrov complete the assignment at Wimbledon starting next week?

On the plus side, this year Dimitrov has discovered a consistency that until now he’s sometimes lacked. And if you can’t be consistent in 250s or even Challengers, you can’t hope to be consistent in Masters—never mind majors.

But this year seems different. Dimitrov has climbed steadily, thanks partly to having lost in the first round of a tournament just once. That one, though, was a whopper: He was eliminated from the French Open by Ivo Karlovic.

That was a particularly painful blow, mitigated only somewhat by the fact that when Karlovic is serving like a madman (he had 22 aces in that three-set win) and moving well, he can smother anyone. Nevertheless, Dimitrov was coming off the best Masters 1000 performance of his career, in Rome, where he lost in the semis to Rafael Nadal.

So the upset in Paris invited the question: Is Dimitrov destined to become one of those players, like Ernests Gulbis, who dances moth-like around the flame of accomplishment?

When Dimitrov was asked if Karlovic’s reputation as a spoiler made the loss any easier to take, he replied: “I just believe there is no need for that. Of course I wanted to have a good tournament out here, especially here—you know, the last tournament on clay. I must say I was pretty pumped up and I was pretty fresh in a way. I had a lot of matches the past weeks, but that's what I do and that's what I love doing. At the end of the day I don't want to get myself too down for that. It's just a loss.”

Clearly, Dimitrov has already adopted one habit of the elite players: A resistance to allowing a loss to fester. He went on to say, “I had a good clay-court season, so I'm not putting my head down. (This loss) is just going to motivate me even more, and I'm going to come back even stronger. Actually, it gives me extra time to rest and get ready for the upcoming weeks on grass. That's something really exciting to look forward to.”

And now we come to the good part: Dimitrov wasn’t just blowing smoke. He went out and backed up his claims by winning at Queen’s Club, where the seeded contenders included Wawrinka, Murray, and Tomas Berdych. In the final, Dimitrov came back from match-point down to prevail over one of the better grass-court players in the game, Feliciano Lopez.

“When it comes to fast surfaces,” Dimitrov remarked, he's always very tricky to play. I just fought hard and left everything out on the court—that was my main goal. I achieved what I was looking for."

Now, Dimitrov is poised on the doorstep of the Top 10. One reason he’s there is because of his terrific, under-publicized coach, Roger Rasheed. They started working together last October, and since then Dimitrov has won titles on indoor hard (Stockholm, d. David Ferrer), outdoor hard (Acapulco, d. Kevin Anderson), and clay courts (Bucharest. d. Lukas Rosol). With his triumph on grass, Dimitrov has completed something like an ATP 250 career mini-Grand Slam, right?

This proficiency on all surfaces suggests that Dimitrov is a man made for his times. The impression is underscored by his lithe but rugged build, as well as his weapons. Dimitrov stands 6’2”, has broad shoulders and lean muscles, a big serve, and a ground-shaking one-handed backhand to go along with his powerful forehand.

Dimitrov has also earned a measure of fame—or perhaps notoriety is a better word—as a lothario. He’s currently the boyfriend of the new French Open champion, Maria Sharapova. I wouldn’t discount the impact that the diligent and career-obsessed 27-year-old has had on the young Bulgarian.

Commenting on their relationship in an article in W magazine, Dimitrov said, “It’s not easy. With travel, media, the gym, practice, we hardly see each other. On the other hand, we truly understand each other. We know what sacrifice is.”

In some ways, Dimitrov embraces the “sacrifice” half of the athletic equation more than the “hedonist” half. Much to Sharapova’s chagrin, she can’t get her squeeze to even share a glass of wine with her. He claims never to have even tried alcohol in any form, declaring, “I figure I can create my own buzz.”

Lately, Dimitrov has been backing up that claim in more ways than one. Perhaps, as with that wine he never allows to pass his lips, the moment of peak, perfect maturity is inexorably approaching.


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