Don't tell Grigor Dimitrov that he is tennis' next big superstar. The 22-year-old Bulgarian knows he must keep improving. He is forging his talent through grueling work and painful defeat, aware that his career journey will prosper so far as his mental resilience will take him.
Only then will he be ready to win Grand Slam titles against Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Sports fans can be impatient waiting for young players to don a superhero's cape. Often, the burden of great expectations can harm developing athletes before they've reasonably accumulated the experiences of competing at the world's highest level.
"They [expectations] play in my head sometimes," Dimitrov said in USA Today Sports.
So much of this pressure comes from tennis fans who want him to succeed. They see his talent and marvel at his potential. It would be a shame for someone so gifted to never figure it out, or to drift away from the challenges that demand no less than total commitment.
They watch and wait for him to burst into stardom. They hope to escort him into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where he will one day sit at the exclusive table for its greatest legends. He's just too good not to get there someday, right?
They don't want to see him get beat down for nearly a decade and then finally win his first Grand Slam at age 28. See, he should have done this years ago.
In Major League Baseball, the most well-rounded athletes are called "five-tool players." This is a player that can hit for a high batting average, hit with home-run power, run the bases with speed, field with exceptional range and throw with powerful accuracy. These are players like Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr., rare even amongst baseball legends.
We can apply this five-tool standard to tennis:
- Does he have a great service game to pick up easy points?
- Does he possess great hands at the net and creative shot-making touch?
- Does his footwork set up big baseline weapons, ideally both forehand and backhand?
- Does he have the vision and speed to be a great returner and defensive player?
- Does he have the mental toughness and competitive drive to dominate the sport?
Even the greatest tennis players of all time do not perfectly possess all of these five-tool qualities, but they should be great with at least three of them.
Take Rafael Nadal. He does not dominate with the first two qualities listed, but he has worked hard at adapting these skills as good complements to his game. His dominance is clearly built on the final three standards, with standard No. 5 as perhaps his defining quality.
Roger Federer? Even the Swiss Maestro is not flawless. He dominates with the first three standards, though the stature of his backhand is fiercely debated. His footwork has always been exceptional. Most tennis fans would say Federer is still very good with the final two standards, but he is defined by a combination of the first three standards.
The great Pete Sampras could have improved standard No. 4, and it took him a few more years after his 1990 U.S. Open title to become a mentally tough and dominating player. But Sampras was defined by the first two standards.
Dimitrov could one day master all five standards. His Australian Open quarterfinals loss to Rafael Nadal was a breathtaking glimpse of his all-courts talent, and may have foreshadowed the arrival of The Great Grigor, The Bodacious Bulgarian or King Dimitrov I.
He served with power, sometimes clocking in at 130-136 mph. His accuracy was solid, effectively serving wide and pulling Nadal off of the deuce court.
Several times in the match, Dimitrov's long arms produced sweeping inside-out forehands. These forehands produced a smooth, heavy thwack that had Nadal scampering and flailing to stay in the point, or forcing the Spaniard to cut an all-or-nothing up-the-line special.
A lot gets mentioned about Dimitrov's beautiful backhand (even though his forehand is a better finisher), but it's the control and variety he produces that makes it effective. It also holds up well against Nadal's high topspin.
Best of all, Dimitrov has gorgeous touch around the net. He is learning when to volley, and he can drop feathery, wicked spin. Once in the first set, he took a high floater at net and cut a hard slice; it sailed crosscourt and landed gently on Nadal's side, before darting sideways like a frantic hummingbird.
Dimitrov has a champion's footwork. At times he charged inside the baseline to pick up the ball early and dictate the action. At other times, he tracked down some of Nadal's best punches, running several meters beyond the baseline, retrieving high bounces and sending them back with low, deep slice to reset his positioning.
There is no question Dimitrov has the special tools to be great. So, what is stopping him?
Entering the War-Zone of Modern Tennis
Until recently, teenage tennis prodigies could make a championship impact on the ATP tour. They were more comparable to gymnasts in the sense of being rewarded for how they employed their skills in a more finesse, vertical game. John McEnroe, Mats Wilander and Boris Becker won as teenagers with their talent, but that's scarcely possible in today's tennis landscape.
Nadal was the last great teenage champion, and the one most responsible for changing the physical nature of tennis. No longer can players come into the ATP and rely on tennis skills. They must also have a man's well-conditioned body. He must be a boxer, ready to grind and take hits for three or four hours at a time.
Dimitrov is competing in an ultra-competitive war-zone where the difference between losing and championships can be the level of strength versus exhaustion. He had not developed the stamina and mental tenacity to win against the very best.
He has needed time to grow his all-courts game in the fires of heated competition, generally against warriors who have had several more years to master their modes of attack. He has also learned firsthand that it takes mental resilience and uber-fire to measure up to Djokovic and Nadal.
It's unfair to expect that Dimitrov and his emerging generation would immediately step in and win like the stars of yesteryear. They are competing in a supersonic world of cyborg athletes where survival must be learned before greatness.
Add in the impossible expectation of his former nickname, "Baby Fed." The label was a flattering comparison of skills to the Swiss Maestro but a ridiculous way to measure his destiny. Dimitrov has also made it clear he wants no part of the nickname.
Furthermore, there is senseless media chatter about his relationship with WTA star Maria Sharapova. It's pointless to presume what kind of effect this has on his tennis results, but there it is.
Why Dimitrov Will Soon Compete For Slams
Pete Sampras couldn't resist either, predicting, "If he’s not in the top 10 or maybe even the top five by the end of the year, I’ll be surprised."
All of the well-wishing aside, Dimitrov is ready to compete at a higher level, because he is now showing the maturity, composure and work ethic to fight hard in his matches.
In the third round at the Australian Open, he had to be patient to find opportunities against big-serving Milos Raonic. He never lost sight of defending his own serve, and he showed patience to win big points.
He is now working with new coach Roger Rasheed who once coached super-competitive Lleyton Hewitt. Rasheed's drill-sergeant mentality and fitness demands are exactly what Dimitrov has needed. Already, the young Bulgarian has added strength to his frame and fire to his game. He even let out his own high-adrenaline scream to match Nadal midway in the second set of their aforementioned encounter.
Dimitrov has tasted the bitterness of a painful loss, and he's willing to use this to get better. After his quarterfinals loss to Nadal, he was seen brushing away tears. He said to ATPworld.com:
I had expectations for myself. That wasn't just to go out there and play. That's to me the biggest disappointment, the negative part of it, of course. Of course I shed a few tears, but it should hurt. It should hurt. And it does hurt.
He also understands that it will take more than disappointment, but that this pain is the price to pay in competing for championships, continuing with ATPworldtour.com, "The one thing I'm really excited is to actually get back on the court in the upcoming weeks and start working and come up to the same stage and try to do it again."
Those words must have been music to Rasheed's ears.
Dimitrov's talent has no ceiling. It's his level of commitment and resilience that will most determine how soon he competes for and wins Grand Slam titles. There are countless lessons to come and times he will soak in more pain while learning to win.
Maybe a decade from now, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic will be glad to pull out a chair for Dimitrov and sit together at the table of legends. But right now they would love to bar the door for another few years.
By summer, Dimitrov will be hoping to grab one of his own big trophies.
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