Grigor Dimitrov looks like a conquering hero. He's 6'3" with deep, dark eyes and hair, and the model look for a dashing, scruffy beard. At times, he flashes his amiable smile, but when he's hard at work, tracking down brilliant retrievals or whipping his beautiful single backhand, he's got a fighter's intensity and a winner's bearing.
He's the spiritual descendant of mythical heroes who populated the ancient islands all over the Aegean. But he's not Theseus or Jason. He's not even Greek. He's the pride of Bulgaria. He carries a tennis racket in place of a sword, and his quest is no less than to be the greatest player on the ATP tour.
There's every chance he will define modern tennis mythology with a seismic impact well north of Athens or Troy.
Dimitrov could be ready to call down competitive fire and hit thunderbolts with his newfound maturity for creative grinding. He's no longer content with eye-popping highlight shots and sporadic success. He's now the most likely player to become the next big star in tennis.
Labyrinthine Twists of a Young Tennis Career
While Rafael Nadal was edging out Roger Federer at their legendary 2008 Wimbledon classic, young Dimitrov was winning the junior Wimbledon title. He followed this up with the junior U.S. Open title and No. 1 ranking. He was the golden boy most likely to follow in Fedal's legendary footsteps.
Alas, the "Golden Age" of Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic has had no room for young 20-somethings. It's a man's game, requiring no less than muscular stature, physical power and uncompromising professionalism.
The bodacious Bulgarian tantalized with his talent, but his potential for stardom faded more than flourished. He was unable to build on his sensational start to 2014, the promising stretch that saw him trouble Nadal in the Australian Open quarterfinals, win three titles on three different surfaces, get to the Wimbledon semifinals and peak with the No. 8 ranking.
By 2016, Dimitrov was twisting in the wind, no longer a protege to the conditioning demands of former coach Roger Rasheed. He ceased to be tabloid material for dating WTA superstar Maria Sharapova, but he could not find his way with tennis.
Dimitrov also didn't bother to show up at Sofia one year ago to play in the newly sanctioned ATP tournament, the first time in 35 years it would host this prestigious event. Many Bulgarian fans felt crushed. He was criticized, and he offered no explanation for this gaping omission, according to Burak Busche for Vavel.
By summer, Dimitrov was a talented afterthought, in and out of early rounds but failing to rise up the ranks, while the tennis world turned its attention to younger aspirants like controversial Nick Kyrgios, clay-court warrior Dominic Thiem and young Alexander "the Great" Zverev.
The golden hero was lost. He was running into one dead end after another, banging his head into the No. 40 ranking by late July.
On Wings of Victory
The sky opened up in August with a glimmer of hope. While most of the tennis world remarked on Djokovic's Olympics fall, Nadal's latest comeback and Andy Murray's surging drive toward the No. 1 ranking, Dimitrov turned a corner. He defeated Stan Wawrinka on his way to the Western & Southern Open semifinals, narrowly losing to eventual champion Marin Cilic.
Momentum built up, and although Murray whipped him in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, he defeated Nadal at Beijing on his way to that final. There he battled Murray with a much fiercer attitude. Dimitrov was a factor on the ATP tour once again.
After a month into 2017, Dimitrov is arguably the bronze medalist for January. He defeated Thiem, Raonic and Nishikori, all top-10 players, to win Brisbane. He stormed through the bottom of the bracket at Melbourne, dueling Nadal in perhaps the best match of the tournament, but which would quickly be overshadowed with Federer's bigger triumph in the final.
And now it's all come full circle in Sofia where all is forgiven. Dimitrov is the most important figure in Bulgaria since Ivan Asen II ruled the country's last great empire.
Is 2017 different than 2014? Why is Dimitrov ready to conquer the other living legends?
Heir Apparent from the Lost Generation
They are the mid-20-somethings who have been branded tennis' "Lost Generation." One year ago, we wondered if their time was fading. Would Dimitrov, Raonic, Nishikori, David Goffin, Bernard Tomic and Jack Sock rise up to compete for major titles? Or would they watch the younger mini-generation (dubbed "Generation Next" by the ATP World Tour) pass them by?
Raonic defeated Federer on his way to the Wimbledon final and the year-end No. 3 ranking, but Dimitrov might be the greater candidate to win that elusive major.
Dimitrov is a five-tool talent:
- A near-dominant serve that is growing with big-match experience.
- Terrific hands and net play when he makes it a priority. He could very well win Wimbledon some year, and he has the ability to create and finish short points.
- World-class footwork to set up his fluid forehand and improving backhand. He's learning to play on the baseline with greater offensive boldness.
- Vision and speed as a defensive retriever. He can run down any ball on clay, and he's that rare player who can use these skills to bid for a French Open title.
- Competitive toughness and mental drive. This is the most important category that will mark him as elite or also-ran when his career is said and done. All great players must figure out how to stay composed and win with their minds. This is his final frontier.
Dimitrov admitted to the ATP World Tour that the Nadal match last month was a difficult disappointment: "But then I kind of realised that I got that far, and I just had to get on with it. That's the next step. I don't want to discourage myself, and I just need to keep my head high. Keep on working. Stay on the ground, stay humble and keep up the good work."
We Are Tennis magazine tweeted out Dimitrov's thoughts 10 days after the loss:
He's on the cusp of that breakthrough, but it won't be easy. He's got to win something big, like Masters 1000 tournaments Indian Wells or Miami next month. Or maybe he rises on the clay-court tour to sack Monte Carlo, Madrid or Rome. He's a solid bet to get one of those five tournaments if he plays the way he did in January.
If so, that major title could come in 2017 if Dimitrov breaks down the walls that have contained his awesome talent for too long. He could seize the baton from the Big Three legends and begin his own age. He might look the part of a mythical ancient past, but he's in the modern world with trophies to hold high and his own stories to weave.
Are we witnessing the arrival of Dimitrov the First? Stay tuned.