Expectations can be both a blessing and a curse. For young tennis star Grigor Dimitrov, living up to his potential hasn't proven a simple task.
By any metric, 2014 was Dimitrov's breakout season. He finished the year with a 50-18 record, made his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open, his first major semifinal at Wimbledon and reached a career-high No. 8 ranking last August.
With the help of coach Roger Rasheed, Dimitrov gained increased strength and fitness off the court, which resulted in titles at Acapulco, Queen's Club and Bucharest. Impressively, he won all three tournaments on different surfaces. That jack-of-all-trades ability makes him a player who can play well on any court in the world.
Though his 2014 season fizzled to a close with a fourth-round loss at the U.S. Open and early exits in Shanghai and Paris-Bercy, Dimitrov more than earned his status as a legitimate contender.
As ESPN's Peter Bodo wrote:
Learning to win—day in, day out, on days sunny as well as cloudy, cool as well as warm, and when the backhand is clicking as well as on those days when it’s on the fritz—is an important mission for any young player. It’s doubly so for Dimitrov, a mercurial talent whose ball-striking prowess is matched by his flair and star quality.
So far this year, Dimitrov is finding out just how difficult it is for even the most talented players to win consistently.
In Rotterdam this week, he lost 2-6, 6-7 (8) in the second round to journeyman Gilles Muller. Dimitrov barely even made it out the first round, saving two match points just to survive against Paul-Henri Mathieu.
But his most crushing defeat came to Andy Murray in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
A spot in the quarterfinals against teenager Nick Kyrgios was up for grabs, and Dimitrov had plenty of chances to take control of the match. He failed to capitalize and fell 4-6, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 5-7 to the Scot.
He squandered a 3-0 lead in the first set and couldn't build on his second-set comeback. Dimitrov looked flat in the third set and faced an imminent exit. Not even his most inspired tennis of the night could extend the match to a deciding set, and Dimitrov blew a 5-2 lead in the fourth.
Frustrations boiled near the end of the three-and-a-half hour match, and he released anger by spiking his racket onto the Rod Laver Arena court.
The loss didn't sit well with Dimitrov, who told Tennis.com's Matt Cronin: "I'm not going to hide my disappointment. I'm pissed. I'm happy that I competed at a good level and it takes a player like Andy to beat me like that. I'm just disappointed because it's not the result that I wanted."
What bugged Dimitrov the most about losing to Murray is that he didn't play a terrible match. He hung tough with the eventual runner-up and almost reached a fifth set. But in the crucial moments, he shrank.
If there's a perfect microcosm for Dimitrov's recent struggles, it's his loss to Roger Federer in Brisbane last month.
After navigating his way past Jeremy Chardy and Martin Klizan to book a spot in the semifinals, Dimitrov crossed paths with Federer. It was an opportunity to get an important early season win and build confidence. Instead, he was handed a shellacking.
Roger Federer steamrolls Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 6-2 in 53 minutes, and it could've been much shorter. Utter beatdown. Federer-Raonic in final.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) January 10, 2015
Federer's relentless offense and shot precision moved Dimitrov around the court at will. He found a rhythm on his young foe's serve and broke four times during the match. The 53-minute tutorial ended when Dimitrov sailed one of many forehands long.
That loss exposed the chasm that exists between the two players despite all their shared traits.
Dimitrov has long garnered comparisons to Federer because of their similar service motions, forehand styles and one-handed backhands. The Bulgarian was once bestowed the nickname "Baby Federer." Heck, he even hired the Swiss great's old physio. But as Dimitrov tries to distance himself from the Federer-wannabe label and assert his own unique identity, he can still look to his idol for solutions.
As The Tennis Island examined, the three areas Dimitrov needs to focus on are serve, tactical variety and offensive consistency. Those skills are the bedrocks of Federer's game, yet they still hinder Dimitrov.
While Dimitrov struggles to be consistently aggressive and mix up his patterns, what's holding him back the most right now is his serve.
He currently ranks 31st on the ATP World Tour in first-serve points won, 37th in first-serve percentage, 40th in service games won, 42nd in break points saved and 54th in second-serve points won. Yikes. Those numbers won't come close to cutting it for a player with such high aspirations.
Not being able to win free points on serve—especially in pressure situations—keeps Dimitrov from reaching the next level. Unlike Federer, who serves with pinpoint accuracy and is cool under pressure, Dimitrov doesn't yet have that focus.
Milos Raonic, another young player on the brink of Grand Slam glory, doesn't have the movement or shot variety that Dimitrov possesses, but he's lapped his peer when it comes to serving. Raonic's booming serves mask a still-developing game and carry him to consistent success. Dimitrov needs to turn his own serve into a weapon to take the next step.
Making improvements to his serve and adjustments to his tactics will take time. And plenty of trial and error on the court. What should lift Dimitrov's spirit is the fact that despite weaknesses in his arsenal and disappointing early season results, he's still hovering around the Top 10.
Currently sitting at No. 11 in the world, he's only 585 points behind No. 8 Stan Wawrinka, and with deep runs at Indian Wells and Miami, it's conceivable Dimitrov could leapfrog the Swiss. With No. 10 Marin Cilic sidelined with a shoulder injury, Dimitrov may not have to wait much longer to move up the rankings.
Dimitrov could use a strong spring. Last year, he exited in the third round at Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Madrid. Though he regained some momentum before the French Open with a semifinal appearance at Rome, Dimitrov wasn't at his best form entering Roland Garros, where he was bounced in the first round.
If he can improve upon those results over the next few weeks, not only will his ranking rise, but Dimitrov will have more belief when he plays the Big Four. According to tennisabstract.com, he's a paltry 3-18 against the quartet of Federer, Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. As Dimitrov works on rounding out his game, he needs to translate that hard work into big-time wins or risk being stuck in career limbo.
To be the best, you have to beat the best. Dimitrov is learning that lesson the hard way in 2015, and he may have to endure more growing pains before he's truly ready to ascend to the tennis summit.
All statistics courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.
Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.