“You need a bit of luck, of course, but you make your own luck,” Grigor Dimitrov told me. We were talking on the eve of Wimbledon and the tension was tangible around the All England Club as the clock ticked down to day one.
Although only 23, Dimitrov had seen it all before. The Bulgarian’s name has been bandied about as a grand slam champion-in-waiting, thanks to an intoxicating combination of easy timing and deceptively slick footwork, which belies his 6ft 3in frame. Later this month – and now ranked number eight in the world – he attempts the US Open, the last grand slam of the year. At Wimbledon he played the role of pantomime villain to perfection, causing a sensation by knocking out reigning champion Andy Murray in straight sets on the way to the semi-finals. Despite dethroning the crowd favourite that afternoon, his shot-making left much of Centre Court experiencing a perplexing combination of frustration and admiration.
But tennis is also a sport that can be decided by the finest of margins and the majors are a unique test of a player’s temperament. Little wonder the desire for some control over whatever fate may send their way drives many to superstition – Dimitrov among them. “It got to the point where it was way too much: using the same shower, eating the same food, doing everything the same way,” he told me. “But I’m definitely better these days, which I’m happy about.”
One habit remains. Both Dimitrov and his father Dimitar – who coaches at his local tennis club in Bulgaria when he’s not on the road with his son – dislike giving interviews ahead of big matches, believing it will bring ill luck. Our pre-tournament talk at Wimbledon was a rare exception. “I actually have no idea where that one started,” Dimitrov said. “I think it’s just my father – we’ve always been so close, and we just did things and it’s kind of grown on us over the years so we got into these routines.”
It was his father who 20 years ago handed Dimitrov a racket for the first time. Grigor, three years old, was dwarfed by it and Dimitar remembers sawing down the handle to a more manageable size. “At first I just wanted to teach him how to play tennis without having any ambitions to be a professional player,” Dimitrov senior told me when I reconvened with father and son by phone a couple of weeks later. “He just loved playing and it became clear for me at the very beginning that he had a talent. Every time I showed him a certain shot, the movement came naturally to him. He wanted to learn more and more and this made me start thinking more seriously about a tennis career.”
Grigor Dimitrov now lives in Los Angeles, enjoying the benefits of year-round warm-weather training – and occasional glitzy invitations, such as the recent ESPN sport awards, hosted by the rapper Drake. He grew up in the simpler surroundings of Haskovo, a small town in southern Bulgaria about two and a half hours from the capital Sofia. As an aspiring pro with big ambitions, he was hardly surrounded by an abundance of practice partners. Bulgaria has little tennis pedigree to speak of and most of his childhood friends were hooked on the more conventional sporting options of football, volleyball and basketball.
“I think tennis was just in my genes,” he said. “My father was a coach, my mother was a former volleyball player so, for me, all the way there was nothing else but tennis. My father loved the single-handed backhand so to him that was the main goal, we were always fascinated by that shot. He taught me all the technique and how to structure my game. I was really privileged to have a father like that.”
Much of Dimitrov’s childhood was spent on the court, ploughing his way through endless baskets of balls in search of the flawless technique necessary to realise his ambitions. But this is no Andre Agassi tale of an unhappy child forced to live out the dreams of a domineering father. Rather, Dimitrov says it was his own work ethic that often kept them out there. “It’s good to have a good teacher but you always need a pretty good student,” he said. “He was a very strict man and throughout the summer we would be out there on the court at the hottest times of the day but I loved it. I was enjoying it so much and I think that’s what made us work so well together. We were pulling each other up and striving for greatness.”
But there was a limit to how far Haskovo could support Dimitrov’s growing ambition. Like many others from nations lacking in tennis heritage, he found himself compelled to leave his country and at the age of 13 joined the same Barcelona academy that was fostering the teenage Andy Murray’s talent.
“I left the country pretty early,” he said. “It was quite a sacrifice honestly. I was alone and it takes a lot of discipline to do that. My father and mother were coming to visit me when they could and of course I missed them, like every young kid, but I wanted to do it, I wanted to explore more options and so for me it was just like, ‘I have to go hard.’ I was willing to do anything to get better and while I missed home, at the same time I was so excited to be there and meet other new friends and play my game, so sometimes it was fading away.”
Did Murray’s early success inspire his decision to move to Spain? “No, we didn’t know about him till we got there but at the time we had a lot of top players that were at the academy – 10 guys in the top 200. We were all just cheering each other on and I think that helps a lot, especially when you’re young and you want to prove yourself.”
In Barcelona, Dimitrov came under the wing of former Olympic silver medallist Emilio Sánchez. “When Grigor arrived you could immediately see he was an incredible talent,” Sánchez remembers. “I was so shocked by this guy because he would hit every ball perfect. But for a while it limited him, as in his mind he thought his talent would be enough. And at a high level, it’s not. You also need incredible determination and hard work.”
For some time, however, that talent was enough to bring in the titles and the plaudits. At 17, he won both the 2008 Wimbledon and US Open junior titles in such style that Roger Federer’s former coach Peter Lundgren commented that he was even better than Federer at the same age. It led to an unwanted moniker, “Baby Federer”, which proved something of a burden in his early years on the professional circuit.
“I guess some things are inevitable,” Dimitrov said. “As soon as someone starts doing good, everyone’s starting to exaggerate about how he’s better than this guy was and all that. In the beginning I thought the Federer comparisons were cool but after a while I wasn’t happy with it. It’s not the best thing you can hear as you’re trying to develop as it puts extra pressure on a young kid. These days I believe in results. It’s very simple: they speak for themselves.”
It was the teenager’s first taste of the media and a world where stories can mushroom out of control in an age of 24/7 coverage and Twitter. Dimitar has limited tolerance for the constant attention surrounding his son. “Doing interviews has been a distraction for him,” he said. “The most important thing is to concentrate on playing.”
Dimitrov himself has developed a simple approach: like many players he just doesn’t read what’s written about him any more. “Nowadays, with all the social media, everyone knows everything,” he said. “Everyone knows what you should and shouldn’t be doing. But I know what I want, where I’m heading, and I’m not one of those guys that reads any of that stuff.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to keep a low profile when you’ve been linked with some of the most talked-about sportswomen on the planet. Murmurings that Dimitrov was dating Serena Williams surfaced in 2012, before being superseded by speculation that he was in a relationship with current world number six, Maria Sharapova – rumours that were confirmed when they were snapped together by the paparazzi in Rome last year.
While Sharapova skilfully skirted the topic with the media, Dimitrov found himself squirming as the questions flooded in at every tournament. “When reporters ask private questions after your matches, I’ve always believed it’s an invasion,” he complained last year. “You’re there because you won your match, not because of what’s happening in your private life.”
Is he more comfortable with the focus these days? “Hey, it is what it is,” he shrugged. “It’s part of the game, they say. I can’t blame anyone for that and we’re happy, which is the most important thing. It’s nice, you know, there’s a lot of respect and obviously sometimes when you maybe need advice or something, you know who to ask.”
It was Sharapova, not a coach, who provided the inspirational pre-match pep talk before Dimitrov’s breakthrough win against Novak Djokovic in Madrid last year, his first victory over a member of the top five. Dimitrov refuses to divulge what she told him that evening but it signalled the start of a growing belief that he belongs among the best in the world.
However, beating players such as Djokovic and Murray over best of three sets is one thing, doing it over best of five on the biggest stages of all is quite another. Despite climbing 25 places in the ranking during 2013 to finish the year at number 23, there were suggestions that Dimitrov was more style than substance when it really mattered, fuelled by a failure to progress beyond the third round at any of the majors.
Patrick Mouratoglou, now coach to Serena Williams, worked with Dimitrov at his Paris academy when the Bulgarian was in his late teens. He feels some of the criticism was unfair. Tennis has never been more brutally competitive and these days it takes longer than ever for players to develop. “Grigor is a natural crowd-pleaser,” he told me last autumn, during the year-end WTA Championships. “He loves to play hot shots but people don’t always see that he also knows how to win big matches. He has natural physical abilities and, more than that, I would say that tennis runs in his blood. He lives, eats, loves and feels tennis. I believe he can win grand slams, he just needs time.”
Enter Roger Rasheed, a no-nonsense, tough-talking Aussie who took Lleyton Hewitt to two grand slam finals a decade ago. Hired as full-time coach to transform Dimitrov into someone physically capable of matching the best in the world, he boasts his training regimes are so demanding that he can make a player vomit in a minute. It didn’t take long before his new charge was pushing the pain barrier during a punishing off-season programme over Christmas. “He’s a hard taskmaster but I’m a very hard worker so he can’t scare me with any of his chat,” Dimitrov laughed. “Lots of weights, lots of hard work, putting more extra miles in than ever before, that’s what it takes.”
It paid off. In January, he made the quarter-finals of the Australian Open for the first time, pushing Rafael Nadal to the brink in a compelling match which the Spaniard won 3-6, 7-6(3), 7-6(7), 6-2. Dimitrov was reduced to tears afterwards in the locker room but crucially he realised the gap was closing. Come Wimbledon and he found himself once again in the last eight, this time against Murray. Few gave him a chance against the defending champion, a player who had won more grass-court matches than anyone else over the previous two years.
“I’d already had a match on the Centre Court so I was comfortable out there,” Dimitrov said. “Andy’s a great player, outstanding guy off the court, I know him very well, but I was just playing good tennis that day. It’s not easy as you’re playing against him and the crowd but I did a great job of staying composed. Everything turned out to be on my side.”
Murray was brushed aside in straight sets, a barely believable rout that left spectators and pundits alike stunned. Was this Dimitrov’s year? The formidable presence of Novak Djokovic awaited in the semi-finals and the match could barely have been more tense, both men pushing each other to their limits over three hours in soaring temperatures. But it was Djokovic who held firm, winning tiebreaks in the third and fourth sets to end the challenge of his younger rival.
Again it was a bitter pill to swallow. Distraught, Dimitrov left immediately for the US and as he watched Djokovic lift the trophy that Sunday from a hotel room several thousand miles away he couldn’t help thinking what might have been. “That defeat still hurts,” he admitted. “It stings a little but it should sting and it feels good that it does. It’s good to feel that way. You have to feel that way in order to want more from yourself and to work harder. So to me that was a loss that I had to accept but I need to put my head down and be even better next time I’m on court. I really wasn’t that far away this year.”
The relentless nature of the tennis tour does not allow a huge amount of time for reflection. The US Open rapidly approaches and Dimitrov will soon have another shot at glory. “I respect the top guys and all that but when we come face to face I want to win,” he said. “There comes a time when you realise that you can play good tennis as well and you feel confident. I can’t wait to see how big I can go.”
The US Open runs from August 25 to September 8, usopen.org
Photographs: Elizabeth Weinberg; Getty Images; Reuters