Over the next two weeks, as the new season begins and the Australian Open nears, our panel of writers and editors will debate the five burning questions on each tour.
PETER BODO, Senior Writer: I have a two-word answer: Roger Federer. It’s not so much that Federer has endorsed Grigor Dimitrov, the 23-year-old Bulgarian who finally made an impression last year. The important detail is that Federer didn’t win his first major until he was almost 22. Great champions sometimes take their time hitting their stride. Not all prodigies are destined, like Boris Becker or Mats Wilander, to win Grand Slam titles as teenagers.
Dimitrov had won just one title before last season, but he added three more in 2014, giving us confirmation that he’s getting more comfortable playing under pressure and in big moments. Those three titles also represented the most common surfaces used on the pro tour, clay (Bucharest), hard (Acapulco) and grass (Queen’s Club). Dimitrov is demonstrating a versatility that will make him a threat on any surface, at any time. He’s here to stay.
ED MCGROGAN, Senior Editor: I’ll take your Federer analogy one step further, Pete. Like the all-time great, Dimitrov passes the “eye test,” an assessment that can’t be quantified by statistics, wins or titles. Dimitrov will move the numbers on all of those measures, but you don’t need advanced analytics to realize what the youngster does so well. His backhand not only looks good, but it flies through the court on any surface, as you point out. That stroke has tended to overshadow Dimitrov’s other formidable shots: He makes flawless contact with his forehand and he can serve into the 130-m.p.h. range. He plays good defense when necessary and has a coach, Roger Rasheed, who will accept nothing less than a fanatical devotion to fitness. There is brawn behind Dimitrov’s beautiful game, and I see 2015 as the next chapter of his evolution into one of this generation’s great players.
STEVE TIGNOR, Senior Writer: It depends on what the meaning of “real” is here. Dimitrov is undeniably a star and an appealing new attraction for the sport. On the court, his game will keep the explosive, attacking, one-handed tradition of his hero, Federer, alive for years to come. Off the court, he has made a name for himself as Maria Sharapova’s boyfriend and Nike’s next meal ticket.
If “real” means becoming a Grand Slam champion or future No. 1, though, the verdict is not in. In 2014, Dimitrov reached his first Grand Slam semifinal and cracked the Top 10, but he faded down the stretch, and finished the year well behind two other young guns, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic. He also lacks the unstoppable weapon—bomb serve, killer forehand—that most major champs have relied on when they’ve needed it. The most serious problem for Dimitrov, though, may be age. Specifically, those of Rafael Nadal (28), Andy Murray (27) and Novak Djokovic (27). They’re also going to be at the tops of their games—and in young Dimitrov’s way—for a few more years to come.
NINA PANTIC, Associate Editor: He’s as real as his relationship with Sharapova. Knocking out crowd favorite Murray in the Wimbledon quarterfinals showed impressive maturity, and in doing so he surely earned some new fans of his own. Dimitrov can resemble Gael Monfils with his ability to pull off remarkable shots with stylish flair, and he has a level of smoothness that has fueled much loftier comparisons. Despite Dimitrov distancing himself from the “Baby Fed” nickname, it doesn’t hurt being mentioned alongside one of the greats in any context.
The problem with Dimitrov is that he notched just four Top 10 wins this year. He went 50–18 in 2014, but to become a Top 5 player he’ll need to beat the players in front of him more often. At 6-foot-3, Dimitrov has the build to go with his strong game, and he should contend for bigger titles in 2015. Maybe his girlfriend’s success will give him some extra motivation.
Thursday, January 8: Will this be the second straight year we'll see a first-time Slam winner at the Australian Open?
Monday, January 12: Have we reached the end of the Big 4 era?
Thursday, January 15: What does Roger Federer need to do to win his first Australian Open title since 2010?
Friday, January 16: What constitutes success for U.S. tennis in Melbourne?