Grigor Dimitrov can no longer be called “Baby Fed”. The soon to be 22-year-old Bulgarian became a man in some ways after defeating World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in a dramatic three set meeting in the first round of Madrid. Some fans may view this as a shock win for Dimitrov, but he’s been building to this moment since the start of the season. “Grisha” may have answered one question in if can he beat the very best in the world, but the question that remains is if this win is a breakthrough moment that changes everything for him or just another positive step in a career that still has a long way to go.
While Dimitrov’s stylish one-handed backhand has earned him perhaps too many comparisons to all-time great Roger Federer, there’s still quite a lot about the Bulgarian’s game that needs improving. Dimitrov’s mental strength, not only in tight matches but just in tight sets, has long been considered a glaring weakness. That was abundantly clear when he pressed Andy Murray in the Brisbane finals back in January. Dimitrov held a break advantage in the opening set in his first ever tour final, but couldn’t close the deal. Murray went on to win in straight sets and that further strengthened Dimitrov’s reputation as being a flashy player to watch, but not good enough to really beat the elite when it mattered.
Dimitrov couldn’t back up that run in Brisbane at the Australian Open when he crashed out of the first round to Julian Benneteau of France. Though he had decent results in the spring — reaching the semis of Rotterdam and then losing to Djokovic at Indian Wells and then to Murray again in Miami — Dimitrov earned more headlines for his confirmed relationship with Maria Sharapova. Dimitrov seemed uncomfortable will all of the added attention, but that’s what happens when your on-court life is viewed as more important than what you do on the court.
He turned that perception around when he pushed Rafael Nadal to three sets at Monte Carlo last month. That effort again suggested he was on the right track as far as testing the elite. But beating them was another hurdle and, in the match against Djokovic in Madrid, many expected Dimitrov to fade away when he failed to close out the No. 1 in straight sets.
But Dimitrov brushed off that disappointment in the third set as he held onto an early break of serve en route to victory. If Dimitrov can continue to be mentally tough against the elite in future matches, then he will certainly distance himself from many of the pretenders in the rest of the ATP Tour who simply don’t believe that they can beat the very best.
The other area that Dimitrov continues to struggle, as evidenced in his match versus Djokovic, is with cramping. When he has to grind it out for several hours, Dimitrov often becomes afflicted with lower body cramps. Whether this is due to poor conditioning, lack of hydration, nerves or a combination of all three is hard to say. He was able to overcome them to a certain extent in his best two out of three match with Djokovic, but it is in best three out of five matches at the Majors that he has yet to prove himself when his body starts to betray him.
Who could forget Dimitrov writhing in agony last year when he suffered a full body cramp against Richard Gasquet at Roland Garros after their 38-shot mini-marathon rally. Dimitrov lost that point and later the match, but the fact that he hasn’t yet improved his conditioning, as we saw in the Djokovic match, says to me he isn’t ready to go all out like Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Nadal are able to do deep in a fifth set.
And that’s why I think although Dimitrov’s win over Djokovic is impressive, it’s too soon to say that he’s ready to leap into the top ten just yet. I believe he will get there, but he needs another year of solid, consistent results and not these one-off great performances every six months or so.
With a great one handed backhand that tennis purists love, an ability to grind in rallies, an all court game that suits every surface, and perhaps now a new mental toughness, Dimitrov looks poised to make an even bigger move this year. After years as being touted as “one to watch” and then burdened with a nickname that no one could live up to, Grigor Dimitrov proved with his win in Madrid that he is ready to stand on his own and not be compared to anyone else but himself.