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Copyright January 2014 by Paul Fein

Grigor Dimitrov Just Might Be
the Next Great Tennis Champion

“He plays like Roger Federer, and he dates Maria Sharapova. He strives high.” −Martina Navratilova, on Grigor Dimitrov

His nicknames— “Baby Fed,” “Showtime,” and “Hollywood”—suggest greatness. Indeed, Grigor Dimitrov flashes plenty of panache and promise, but will 2014 be the year he produces the results experts have long predicted?

Last year, the handsome, 22-year-old Bulgarian’s engagement to Maria Sharapova garnered as many headlines as his best wins. Yet he yearns for the success of 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, whom Dimitrov’s sensational shotmaking and dazzling athleticism are often likened to, or even the success of four-time major winner Sharapova.

For the sixth straight year, Dimitrov improved his year-end ranking, now at No.23. More importantly, he achieved three crucial “firsts” in 2013. He defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 David Ferrer. He grabbed his first tournament title, in Stockholm, and he notched the first men’s singles title in his country’s history. With a new coach, highly regarded Roger Rasheed, and more maturity and experience, it’s no wonder Rafael Nadal and John McEnroe have tapped the immensely talented Dimitrov for stardom.

“If you had to pick one guy, I’d probably pick Dimitrov right now if you have someone who is going to do it,” McEnroe told Tennis View. “I think he’s on the right track again after sort of disappointing some of the people who predicted greatness early.”

Although the good-natured Dimitrov discourages comparisons with the legendary Federer and downplays glowing predictions, he is not shy about discussing almost everything else, as this interview, conducted just before the Australian Open, reveals.

You started playing tennis at age 3 with your father, Dimitar, and your mother, Maria. How did each of them shape your game and your attitude toward tennis?

It’s different when you grow up in a small country like Bulgaria and you have a close family. Sports are in our family’s genes. My father is a tennis coach and my mom was a volleyball player, so they were influential in my coming into sports. Actually, the first thing I remember is that my mom gave me a racket when I was three years old.

About your father, you told Tennis View magazine, “He was very strict. But if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I definitely owe him so much, not everything, but he’s the one who actually brought me out on the court and gave me the racquet.” Was your father ever too strict, too tough on you? What did he do to keep tennis fun for you?

My father definitely was very tough. I always had to wake up in the morning and make my bed and then do a routine, some push-ups and pull-ups and all that. But I was kind of lazy in the beginning, so his discipline helped me a lot to get into a good rhythm. I learned how to go to bed at a reasonable time and do everything in a good way and avoid distractions. I was always naturally interested in tennis. As I was growing up, my father had a group of kids that were working together. We always wanted to compete against each other, challenge each other. I found that very exciting and interesting. When we challenged each other a lot, that helped us grow as players, and that was a big plus for me.

Diana Ivancheva, a knowledgeable player-coach from South Bulgaria, told me: “Our winter season is very cold and difficult, and we didn’t have indoor courts when Grigor was young. So he had to practice in an indoor handball facility with a wood floor, wearing skiing clothing because there was no heat. Grigor showed us nothing is impossible if you have passion and determination. That’s why he is our hero.” Would you please tell me what those early tennis years were like.

That was definitely one of the toughest periods of my life that is now behind me. It’s an experience that I will keep and remember for the rest of my life. All we actually had was a net and two metal poles and a little string to keep the net high enough. We used chalk to make lines on a wooden floor. I remember it was really cold in the early morning at 6 or 6:30. That was the only time we could get a court for an hour. I wore a ski glove on one hand so I could keep at least one hand warm. (Laughter) We went through a lot of struggles early in my tennis career, but we always took the positives out of this experience, and nothing negative. That made me tougher and made me want success even more. Now that I am closer to reaching my goals, I look back and treasure those moments in the past.

Your boyhood idol was 1990s superstar Pete Sampras. What did you like most about Sampras as a player and as a person?

I admire Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and all those past champions. I know Sampras and Agassi myself. I got a chance to hit against them, and I definitely can learn a lot from them. Pete was one of those workaholics who practiced a lot. Many people said Pete couldn’t make it anymore near the end of his career. But he proved them wrong by working hard and winning the [2002] US Open.

Your stylish game and natural athleticism have often been likened to that of Roger Federer. How much, if at all, did your father or you try to model your game after Federer’s?

I don’t think my father tried to model around anyone else’s game. He wanted to establish our own style and our own way of expressing ourselves. You can see that in my one-handed backhand. My father had a one-handed backhand, so that was the only thing he could teach me. I was playing intuitively, the way I feel. To me, the way I play is a way of saying things. I really believe in that a lot. We always feel you should learn strokes correctly but also establish your own shots, your own way of playing, your own rhythm. I think that is really important nowadays.

So, is it a coincidence that your game ended up similar to Federer’s?

I would say, yes. We don’t have that much in common, even though some people don’t agree. But I hope I’m showing that I have my own style, and my own way of playing on the court.

What stands out in your mind about your 7-6(6), 6-7(8), 6-3 victory over No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the Mutua Madrid Open in May on clay, your least favorite surface?

That was a big win for me. It was definitely the biggest win of my career. I never forget that I grew up [playing] on clay, and I’ve had good results on clay. I had a good match against Rafa [Nadal]. I got to the third round at the French Open. It was a bit of a mental game against Djokovic. I feel that what I did against Djokovic is what I have to do against all the top guys. It was one of my best mental performances, and both of us played extremely good tennis. We had some brutal rallies. But at the end of the match, I had a mental momentum, a strength, even though I was cramping. It was one of those nights where I felt extremely free [relaxed] on the court. At first I felt a little overwhelmed, but then I felt I was expressing myself, and that gives me an extra confidence in my shots.

After you upset Djokovic at the Madrid Open, you commented, “First of all, I think that talent doesn’t really win matches. It helps you win matches, but doesn’t win the match itself.” Besides talent, what does it take to win matches?

Talent definitely helps, but sometimes winning or losing comes down to preparation. Before a tournament it’s really important to prepare my game and be able to be composed on the court. You have to have good discipline on and off the court when you train and have good rehab after practices. All that is very important, and when you start winning matches, you know that everything is going in the right direction for you because of that preparation.

After you beat Djokovic, you revealed Maria Sharapova gave you a pep talk that you said “I will definitely remember for the rest of my life.” What did Maria say to you?

I do not want to answer that because there are certain things I want to keep to myself. It wasn’t like one of those two- or three-minute speeches. It was very short. But her words brought me to another dimension regarding playing big matches and on Center Courts. What Maria said was marvelous, and it gave me a lot of momentum.

You have a terrific 14-1 Davis Cup singles record. So far, though, you haven’t had enough help for Bulgaria to advance far. Do you foresee that situation improving during the rest of this decade?

I really hope so. I love Davis Cup, and I think it’s really important. And it’s really important in Bulgaria. You always need that little bit of extra help that your fans give you. Now it’s tough, but in time I’m sure we’re going to find the right person [to complement me]. I want to do well for my country.

Can Bulgaria, a little country without a big tennis tradition, aside from the three top-ten-ranked Maleeva sisters, win the Davis Cup some day?

At the moment, I would say definitely not. It’s too hard now. But I’m a strong believer and a very positive guy. So I always want to have that thought [goal] in my head. We’ll try and strive to make that possible. Now we need to get into a good routine as a team. And then applying that when we play every [Davis Cup] tie, and then we will eventually climb up into the World Group. When that happens, we’ll be the real deal. Then we can actually show and prove what we’re made of.

Roger Federer and his longtime agent Tony Godsick recently started a new boutique sports management agency named Team8. Why did you decide to be represented by this agency?

First of all, I knew Tony and Roger from a few years before. I was represented by Octagon for many years before. I needed something else, something more. We all have a good relationship, and I needed something more personal and smaller. The tennis world now is very big and everyone knows everyone. But it’s good to have a bit of privacy. Let’s face it: Tony and Roger are some of the leaders today, so that helps a lot. I’m very happy that I made the right choice.

You were tested to determine why you suffered from cramps so often. What did the tests reveal? And what steps did you take to reduce the incidence of cramps?

Of course, I’ve tried a lot of things, but you’re never sure if you’re going to cramp or not. It can happen to anyone at any time. Tennis requires a lot of endurance, and you need to do a lot of work to build that endurance. I’m putting in more work in the gym to get better and more work on the court, too. I have to make sure I have the proper ingredients when I come on court against the top guys. This has taken time, but we’re on the right track now, and hopefully I won’t have that cramping problem again.

Can you go five really tough sets the way Nadal and Djokovic go against each other and still be in good shape at 5-all in the fifth set when it’s 90 degrees? Can you equal their stamina?

That’s my goal. Obviously, they’re at a different level at the moment. They also have a lot of experience on the tour. You grow with age. But there are no secrets or shortcuts. You have to practice and train very hard.

Roger Rasheed is renowned for his emphasis on fitness and his ability to instill belief in his players. Is that why you hired him as coach? And are you now fitter and more confident than ever?

At the moment, I feel great. I’m happy that I have Roger on my side. He’s definitely emphasizing a lot of fitness. He’s also doing a tremendous coaching job on the court. We’ve only been together for three months, and obviously we need to spend more time together. Everything else like confidence in matches will come [increase] with every tournament we’re together. We want to make the most out of every day. One of the first things Roger mentioned to me was not to play crazy, low-percentage trick shots. I thought there was no point in arguing with him about that or his banning the pink tennis shoes I had been wearing. I was getting some flak from people for those pink shoes anyway. (Laughter)

You converted only 2 of 18 break point chances in your 3-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4, 11-9 upset loss to Grega Zemlja in the Wimbledon second round. Against Roger Federer in Basel, you converted only 1 of 10 break point chances. Against Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros, you converted only 1 of 5 break point chances. Why have you had difficulty in breaking serve in these matches and some other matches during your career? And what are you doing to improve in this very important area?

Break points are some of the toughest points to win. The other guy has the advantage serving. Against Roger, he played some extremely good points, so I couldn’t do much better. I believe I had only one decent chance to get into a rally. I’m working on this area. The only thing you can do is focus on the return and get the return back and see how the rally will go. Of course, if you look at my past, there are a lot of minuses in this department. I’ve been pressing [not playing my best] on the break points, but with more matches, I’ll get a better grip on those important moments.

Another very important and perhaps related area is tiebreakers where you had a 10-13 record in 2013, including a 2-5 record against top 10 players. What are the keys for you to do better in tiebreakers in 2014?

I’m not going to try to go for too much [big shots] and also not miss easy shots in the tiebreaks. At the end of the day, you try to play your game and play your best, but you need to take risks. If it doesn’t go my way, then I can do better the next time. Tiebreaks are tough because there is a very small margin between winning and losing them. I hope my record in tiebreaks will get better this year.

Are you involved in any charity or foundation work? Please explain.

Not at the moment. But I always want to help and every chance I get, I give my gear to Bulgaria at auctions. I’m more than happy to raise money for that cause. In the future, I hope I can work on that and actually try to make that [my own charity] happen. I am really excited about doing that one day.

What most attracted you to Maria Sharapova when you started dating her? And how have your views and feelings toward Maria evolved since then?

What can I say? I always like to keep my private life on the side [private]. Obviously, I don’t want to reveal anything. The one thing I can say is that she is a person who has been with me through good times and bad times. To me, she is Maria. We have a great relationship so far. We’re living together and all that, so I think we’re managing pretty well. In a way, it’s not very easy to manage that because of all the traveling, but we’re making the most of it. At the end of the day, she is the person next to me, and the one I can tell anything to. So that’s worth a lot. Nowadays, it’s a hard world out there, and it’s tough to find a person you want to be next to. And we care about each other.

You recently said that you cherish your time with Maria, and “We have a lot of common things outside tennis.” What things do you have in common with Maria?

Away from the courts, we are really creative people. We both like architecture, fashion, and all those things. We like to talk about things like that. We like to spend time together at home—that’s a cool time. We like to actually be able to go for a walk together. We also have the same values, and the same eyes [perspective] on the world. What can I say? At the end of the day, I love that woman.

In your first tournament with new coach Roger Rasheed at the If Stockholm Open, you won your first ATP World Tour title, scored one of your biggest wins by upsetting No. 3 David Ferrer, and became the first Bulgarian to win a singles title in the Open Era on the ATP World Tour. Please tell me about each of these landmark events.

That was big! It was also new for Roger. We started working the first week, and the next thing you know I won the tournament. That had never happened to him before with any player he coached. And for me, I had never won a title before. So it meant a lot to us. It was a big week in general. It was big not only for me and for my team but also for my country. I hope it will inspire people in Bulgaria to get into tennis and to realize everything is possible if you work hard. It doesn’t matter where you come from. If you know where you’re heading and do the right things, you’ll be rewarded someday.

After the Stockholm final, you said, “[The title is] big not only for me but also for the country. They need to see that everyone can succeed. I am happy that I could achieve something like that. I hope that people in Bulgaria appreciate [my win] and that it's going to motivate little kids and people in the clubs to work harder.” How much has your success already increased the popularity of tennis in Bulgaria, both in terms of player participation and fans following tennis?

It has definitely increased a lot. I’m not the biggest fan of polls and polling. But I have heard through my father, who is traveling with junior players, that a lot of clubs in Bulgaria are now developing a lot of kids, and they’re selling more and more tennis gear all over Bulgaria. So these are good signs. And let’s also not forget the history we had before with the three Maleeva sisters [No. 3 Manuela, No. 4 Magdalena, and No. 6 Katerina], and now Tsvetana Pironkova, who has twice beaten Venus Williams at Wimbledon and reached the semifinals there. All of us are bringing something to the table. I hope Bulgaria will develop a tennis culture. We’re all helping that happen.

What were your thoughts and feelings before your long-awaited match against Roger Federer in the Basel quarterfinals, which he won 6-3, 7-6 (2)? And what was it like playing the tennis legend you have often been compared to?

It was definitely a great moment for me. And I couldn’t think of a better time and place. It was great playing in his hometown. I arrived there after a good stretch of winning matches, and I felt good. It was really nice coming out on that court. Of course, we were both a bit tense before the match. It was a bit funny warming up with this situation. We took a little while to get over the tenseness, and then everything else was back to normal. Obviously, I respect him, and all this and all that, but when you go out on the court, you’re out there to win. We both put on a good fight.

How would you describe yourself, using three or four adjectives?

I must say that I have never been able to answer that question. I definitely have a good sense of humor. (Laughter) And I’m not afraid of expressing that.

When you played Pat Cash in the CNN interview, you passed him at net three or four times, and then when you hit a lob over his head, Cash said, “I’m not tall enough,” and you quipped, “You’re not fast enough either!”

I like playing around with words.

How else would you describe yourself?

I’m loyal to my friends. I’m big on loyalty and honesty.

Is there any tennis issue or rule you feel strongly about? If so, please explain your views.

Not anymore. Everything has been quiet about what the players want and need. In general, the ATP is doing a great job. The members of the Board of Directors are doing a lot to make the players happy. Of course, you are always going to have someone criticize something about this or that [policy], but at the end of the day the majority of players are happy.

“They are great players, they are dangerous,” praised Rafael Nadal, about you, Jerzy Janowicz, and Milos Raonic. About you specifically, Nadal said, “Dimitrov has everything to be in the top.” Do you agree with Nadal?

This means a lot coming from Rafa. We have a good relationship on and off the courts. I think all of us have our weapons to hurt the top guys. From my point of view, it’s a little bit early to talk about that because I still haven’t done enough of significance yet. I feel I can get to the top of course because that’s what I’m aiming for and why I’m practicing hard and doing all this work. But we all need to prove not only to ourselves but also to the top guys that we are that good. Once we have that respect, then we can talk about that a bit more. But I appreciate what Rafa said.

You’ve never advanced past the third round at a Grand Slam event in your career. How do you explain that? And do you believe that will change significantly in 2014?

Again, you never know. But one of my goals is to really change that record at the Slams. I think I’m pretty close to finding a good rhythm and routine before the Slams begin. I hope this year will be a different bridge for me, and I get into that second week.

How important is religion in your life?

I was very religious until I was 13 years old. I do occasionally go to church—Greek Orthodox Christianity. Before, I used to go regularly to church. When I left my country, everything was different, and I didn’t have that much time to make that work. But every time I get a chance, yeah, I go to church.

“We all want to see serve-and-volley back,” remarked 1980s champion Mats Wilander, who was pleased to see No. 116-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky use that crowd-pleasing style 78% of the time to upset seven-time champion Roger Federer in the Wimbledon second round. Do you agree with Wilander? And since you have all the shots, do you plan to serve and volley more often in 2014?

I’d love to serve and volley more. Nowadays, the surface speed has changed [slowed down] so much, and the players’ styles have changed. Everything has changed so much. I would love to see tennis change the way Wilander said. When I play doubles, the only thing I do is serve and volley. But it’s pretty tough to do that the whole time in singles. Of course, that was a tough match at Wimbledon for Roger, but we all need to see what works in each match on the court. In some matches, the serve-and-volley game is what works. So why not do it.

The French sports newspaper L’Équipe projected you will be No. 1 in its top 5 in the rankings for May 2018. Do you agree with that prediction?

Oh, my birthday is in May, the 16th of May. So that would be a good present. Yes, why not. So, if I’m No. 1 on my birthday, I will take that gift right away. The answer is very simple. Time will tell. That’s a cliché, but I’d rather have a cliché than say anything else. (Laughter)

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