• What the Deuce

'Baby Fed' making a name for himself

Michael Beattie
May 14, 2013
Grigor Dimitrov has reached his first ATP Tour final and beaten world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in 2013 - but can he establish himself as a top-20 player this season? © Getty Images

The Next Big Thing: no other sporting accolade is as much a blessing as a curse. What starts out as the greatest compliment quickly becomes an even greater burden - a standard it is possible only to meet, and never quickly enough. For Grigor Dimitrov, the Bulgarian world No. 26, it is a tag that has trailed him since he was 16 years old.

Ever since Dimitrov won junior singles titles at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2008, he has been tipped for the very top. His coach Peter Lundgren declared that "he is better than Roger Federer was at his age" - and having worked with the 17-time grand slam champion early in his career, his 'Baby Fed' endorsement stuck fast.

Such notoriety does have its perks - a wildcard at Queen's in 2009 saw him reach the second round before bowing out to Gilles Simon. His entry into the Wimbledon main draw that year (awarded for his 2008 junior triumph) was curtailed in the second round by a knee injury. But imagine trying to live up to that mantle? The constant monitoring of your career trajectory, the added criticism, the glare of the spotlight before the plaudits have been earned in the traditional way, with victories and titles. You can't blame him for wanting to downplay the idea of being Federer's heir apparent.

"You know, all the comparisons, I definitely want people to stop with that," he told CNN in early May. "Of course we have some similarities here and there. I'm flattered with that and actually, I thought it was really cool at the beginning.

"But with time, I've realised what I am. It's something that is definitely not what the other person is, so I'm trying to build up my own style and when I'm on court, I do my own shots. I think that's eventually what everyone will see."

"I'm flattered and actually I thought it was really cool at the beginning - but with time I've realised what I am"
Grigor Dimitrov

That said, can he blame us? Watch Dimitrov play a set and the similarities with the most decorated grand slam champion in the men's game are hard to ignore: the balletic movement across the court, the devastation he is capable of with that forehand and a backhand that is all but a facsimile of Federer's, the elegant anachronism that has been as much a statement stroke for the Swiss as his undoing over the years, particularly on clay. Their serves may look markedly different - and you've never seen Roger try this - but Dimitrov's ability to conjure the odd moment of magic do little to distance him from the man many regard as the greatest player to pick up a racket.

Results, however, will - and as Federer would tell Dimitrov, there's no better way to make a name for yourself than to beat the very best. In 2001 the Swiss beat defending champion Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, a result that left him in tears on Centre Court. Just last week Dimitrov cried after toppling world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the Mutua Madrid Open (so much for doing away with the Federer parallels), a result that led to an outpouring of hero worship from his countrymen and comparisons with Bulgaria's greatest sporting legend of modern times, Hristo Stoichkov, winner of the Golden Boot at the 1994 World Cup.

"Grigor made us proud to be Bulgarians," said Stefan Tsvetkov, president of the Bulgarian tennis federation. "It's an incredible win and it can only be compared with the victories of our national team in 1994."

Now for some perspective. For all his heroics against Djokovic in the second round in Madrid, Dimitrov went out in the next round, losing to beaten finalist Stanislas Wawrinka. Two weeks earlier he had given Rafael Nadal a scare before going down in three sets in the quarter-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters, a performance he followed with a first-round exit at hands of Tommy Robredo at the Barcelona Open. He does not yet have a title to his name and has reached just one ATP Tour final, losing to Andy Murray in Brisbane at the start of the season. Winning matches is only half the battle for any tennis player; winning consistently is what sets the best apart.

Perhaps of greater concern is the cramping that he battled against both Nadal and Djokovic. Dimitrov is 21 and, unlike Murray and Djokovic at a similar age, his physique has already filled out. Like the world No. 1 and No. 3 the onus is now on him to ally his game with fitness levels that will see him go the distance - and not only over three sets, but five. At the same age that Federer won his first Wimbledon title (sorry, Grigor), he is yet to go beyond the second round of a grand slam.

But the tennis landscape has changed in the decade since Fed's 2003 triumph. Dimitrov is the youngest player in the world's top 50, one of just three players under the age of 23. It is harder than at any other time in the sport's history for youngsters to break into the upper reaches of the men's game, and those that do have a tendency to stick around. At 21, time is on Dimitrov's side, and with his clay court performances this season there's no doubt that he is capable of reaching the second week at Roland Garros this year.

Richard Gasquet's experience in the spotlight from a young age should serve as a cautionary tale for Grigor Dimitrov © PA Photos

Can Dimitrov take the next step and cement a spot in the world's top 20? That ought to be the minimum he expects of himself in 2013. In Rome on Tuesday he faces Richard Gasquet, a man whose career path ought to serve as a cautionary tale for the young Bulgarian. He too was destined for greatness - the champion a nation has been waiting for. He excelled in the juniors and at the age of 15 became the second-youngest player to play at the French Open. In 2003, when he was still just 16, a French Tennis Federation official skipped Federer and simply twinned him with Mozart.

When Gasquet hadn't swept all-comers by the age of 18, however, the tide of public support turned on him. There were titles - on every surface by the time he was 21 - but not enough to silence his critics. He was injury-prone, weak-willed and a quitter in their eyes - one pundit even compared him to a microwave, such was his habit of suddenly going cold after a hot streak. Gasquet is an established top-10 player with nine titles to his name, but - deserved or not - for some he will always be the personification of unfulfilled promise.

Great talents, Carl Jung wrote, are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity; they hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off. Grigor Dimitrov is such a talent - a player who can produce the impossible with a racket in his hand. He is not the next Roger Federer, any more than he is the next Richard Gasquet, Andy Murray or any other player you care to mention. He is, however, one of the most captivating players in the game right now, a bundle of ambition, invention and potential. He's got a shot at reaching the top. Just don't call him baby.

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