Credit Grigor Dimitrov’s newfound ability to block out the distractions, the outside pressure, the expectations of others (including those of us in the media) for his recent surge on the ATP World Tour. Earlier this year, the Bulgarian spoke of running in his own lane, “like a horse with their blinders on.”
His equestrian outlook is paying dividends. Last summer, Dimitrov defeated Aussie Nick Kyrgios, 6-3, 7-5, to win the Western & Southern Open title in Cincinnati, the first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophy of his career. In November, at the Nitto ATP Finals in London — his first inclusion among the elite eight at the year-end championships — he went the distance, the first debutant to do so since Spaniard Alex Corretja in 1998.
“He’s one of the best talents we’ve got,” said Kyrgios, who’s 1-3 against Dimitrov.
Now the No. 4 ranked player in the world, you might think Dimitrov, who early on was pegged to be the second coming of Roger Federer, might finally be at peace with himself. Well, yes and no.
“I wouldn’t say I’m at peace,” the 10-year tour veteran told BNPParibasOpen.com on Wednesday. “I don’t want to be at peace. I’m 26 — there’s no peace for me right now. It’s a war.”
Tolstoyan proclivities aside, Dimitrov is in as good a place as he’s been in years when it comes to his approach both on the practice court and the match court. That “war” within is merely his unbending desire to keep moving forward.
“When I get to the court, I want to push myself to the maximum. When I get to my fitness, I want to push myself to the maximum,” Dimitrov asserted. “At night when I go to bed, I’m tired. I just want to put my head on the pillow because I know I’ve done my work. I take pride in my work. I enjoy what I do right now even more than previous years because my body is finally starting to cooperate. My movement is a little bit better, my fitness level has been better. I’ve been more consistent. All that makes you want to do better. Ultimately, I’m never happy with myself and I want to do more. That’s why the people around me have to pace me a little. One of the things I’ve learned the most is how to rest. I’m still not good at it, but I’m getting there.”
Dimitrov has acquired a revolving-door reputation for hiring/firing coaches. He’s gone through no fewer than five since 2009, among them Peter Lundgren, Peter McNamara, Patrick Mouratoglou, Roger Rasheed and Franco Devin, and is now working with Daniel Vallverdu. To some, that constant shuffle might signal a certain desperation, but Dimitrov offers no apologies.
“You feel it. It’s just like any relationship,” said Dimitrov. “I’ve gone through quite a few coaches, but I don’t regret any of the decisions that I’ve made.”
He then went third person.
“Basically, we always try to find what’s the best for Grigor. That’s kind of how I develop as a person. Step by step, you find the right formula. Once you find it, you keep it.”
Asked if he feels that he’s close to the level of fellow Top-10 colleagues Federer and Rafael Nadal, Dimitrov said, “The ranking speaks for itself, I guess. But I still believe I can do way better. I don’t think I’m near to where I want to be. Of course, I’ve had good results and I’m doing the best that I can, but I want to get even higher, the possibility of being No. 1 one day. It’s the time. It’s as simple as that. I’m a pretty easy-going guy, but at the same time I’m just trying to do my work. In a way, nothing else matters. I enjoy that. I enjoy practicing, waking up early, going to the gym — the whole process. It’s funny, I’m sometimes even enjoying that more than winning a match. But that’s a good sign.
The 2018 BNP Paribas Open, where he’ll open on Saturday against Spain’s Fernando Verdasco, against whom he’s 2-1 lifetime, presents Dimitrov with a golden opportunity for another Masters 1000 title. With Kyrgios, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and 2017 runner-up Stan Wawrinka all sidelined by injuries, the draw has certainly opened up. But Dimitrov isn’t getting too far ahead of himself.
“When you have the opportunity, it’s always good to grab it,” said Dimitrov, who’s never ventured beyond the third round in Indian Wells. “But I just want to focus on myself. I don’t want to think about who’s playing the tournament, who’s not, my seed, who I might face in the second, third, fourth round. That’s irrelevant right now. Everybody’s playing good tennis right now, even though some of the big names are missing. Everybody senses a good opportunity. That’s why I’m just focused on my side, to just control what I can control.”
One of the most promising aspects of Dimitrov’s run at the O2 last fall was his ability to battle back. There was a time in his career when you might have questioned the Bulgarian’s mettle in matches when things weren’t going his way from the start. But in London, Dimitrov fought back from a set down in round-robin play, defeating Dominic Thiem 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, and against Jack Sock in the semis, where he prevailed 4-6, 6-0, 6-3. He went on to top David Goffin in the final, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. It remains, without a doubt, the highlight of his decade-long career.
“It meant everything to me, but also to everyone who’s helped me throughout all the years,” he said. “A lot of them are part of that success. My family was there, my whole team — Daniel Vallverdy, Sebastien Durand. To be honest, I did not expect that to happen. My father was there, my mother. My dad was my coach since I can remember. For him to see that live was — I was happier about that than lifting the trophy. It was a very special moment.”
Dimitrov’s section of the draw in Indian Wells, which includes potential quarterfinal opponent and US Open finalist Kevin Anderson, won’t be an easy one to navigate, but the surging baseliner’s newly-acquired ability to block out the noise and fight his own inner-war will likely serve him well.