No longer baby and never Fed, Dimitrov becoming just Dimitrov

Former Major League Baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

For Grigor Dimitrov, he really had no choice when he arrived at such a crossroad in May of 2016. Almost a decade after first being hailed as the next Roger Federer, his career was spiraling out of control. And fast.

Already in the midst of a regrettable year, Dimitrov was the protagonist of arguably the most infamous match played on the entire ATP World Tour last season. In the final of the second annual Istanbul Open to begin the clay-court swing, the Bulgarian led unheralded underdog Diego Schwartzman by a set and 5-2 in the second. He failed to serve out the match at 5-3 and could not stumble across the finish line despite four times being two points from the title–including in three different games. Dimitrov lost four of his five service points in the second-set tiebreaker and suffered a meltdown of epic proportions in the third en route to a stunning 6-7(5), 7-6 (4), 6-0 loss.

But even the 6-0 scoreline hardly tells the calamitous story. Dimitrov’s third and final penalty for racket abuse came with an automatic loss of a game. And because it happened with the No. 2 seed serving to stay in the match at 0-5, the proceedings ended right then and there. Fans–even commentators–mistakenly interpreted it as a default due such an abrupt conclusion before Schwartzman could capture his maiden title via more traditional means. Technically it wasn’t a default; hypothetically it was.

Predictably, it took several months for Dimitrov to recover.

He promptly lost in the first round of his next five tournaments–including three in straight sets to lower-ranked opponents. The nadir likely came at the French Open, where Dimitrov at least managed to bag two sets but ended up falling to Viktor Troicki 2-6, 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, 6-3 in three hours and 45 minutes.

“I’ve lost a lot of confidence in myself,” Dimitrov admitted afterward during what was a thoroughly disheartening press conference. “It’s not easy to come off losing those kind of matches–those close matches. In the past years I’ve been winning those close matches and that gives you a lot of confidence and motivation. Overall, I’ve lost a lot of that.

“I’ve been [down] before, but this time it’s just kind of different. Sometimes it’s scary of course; it’s just really scary…. What scares me is that I’m really not finding a way, and usually I’m pretty good at bouncing back–whether it’s from a loss or something else. A lot of losses have always motivated me, just right now it’s not happening.”

What was happening was a precipitous fall in the rankings. He plummeted outside the top 40 in the world for the for the first time since February of 2013 after once peaking as high as No. 8.

Dimitrov added that he would be appreciative if someone from his team sat him down and said, “‘listen, this can’t go like this anymore and we need to do something about it.”

Instead, he did it himself.

The man once touted as “Baby Fed” gave Davin the boot and promptly took flight–carrying new coach Dani Vallverdu along for the ride.

Rummaging through his list of stellar results during the second half of last season would take just as long as a Tiger Woods introduction on the first tee.

But, alas, here goes: the Toronto quarterfinals, the Cincinnati semifinals, the U.S. Open fourth round, the Chengdu semifinals, the Beijing final, and the Stockholm semifinals. His losses during that stretch came at the hands of–among a few others–Andy Murray (twice), Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori, Marin Cilic (twice), and Juan Martin Del Potro.

“I don’t want to talk about any (turning) corners or anything, but things seem to be [going] the right way right now,” Dimitrov said after reaching the last four at the Cincinnati Masters in August. “I’m playing good tennis; been working well; on a good path. All these things are for sure adding up, and I just want to make sure I keep doing it now every week. Every tournament that I enter is to win every match and fight and just get out there every day and give [my] best.”

The offseason clearly did nothing to halt Dimitrov’s momentum. Three different top 10 players got a crack at him during the Brisbane International and the results were disastrous–not for Dimitrov, but for the top 10ers. Dominic Thiem fell 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 in the quarterfinals, defending champion Milos Raonic bowed out 7-6(7), 6-2 in the semis, and Nishikori succumbed 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 in Sunday’s title match.

“It is one of the big moments for me,” Dimitrov assured after lifting his first winner’s trophy since Queen’s Club in the summer of 2014. “I think that was an emotional win for me, but at the same time it wasn’t unexpected. I have put in the work. I think I have learned a lot. I have gone through some serious work; I have just been working on myself on and off the court.”

“Baby Fed is back,” Nick Kyrgios posted on Twitter.

But of course that isn’t true. Now 25 years old, Dimitrov doesn’t need the same kind of burdensome pressure that was heaped upon him as a teenager. And Federer doesn’t need 17 Grand Slam titles to be confused with zero.

He’s no longer a baby and we was never Fed. But Dimitrov still has time to become the Dimitrov many thought he would be. And that would be enough.

12 Comments on No longer baby and never Fed, Dimitrov becoming just Dimitrov

  1. Please. Great tournament no question.

    However, it’s one thing for him to go on a hot streak in a tournament and assume it’s up up and away.

    Tsonga beat Murray, Djokovic and Federer at 2014 Toronto. Hasn’t come close to matching that level on a consistent basis since.

    Going to take a longer record of consistency to convince me he’s suddenly for reals.

    More like he’s never earned the honour of being called BabyFed.

    He’ll always be Dim Dim to me until he shows otherwise.

    Hope he proves me wrong.

    • Hawkeye,

      I have to agree with you. So far in his career Dimi has not realized his considerable potential. I don’t think he ever really deserved the name Baby Fed.

      However, I do believe that Dimi has stopped the bleeding by getting himself together and starting the play much better and have improved results.

      Has has been in a kind of free fall for the last year or two and has looked lost on the court. Dimi has been a shadow of the player who gave Rafa such a tough match in the quarterfinals at the 2014 AO.

      I think Dimi should just focus on being himself and not someone else. He does need to find more consistency when it comes to winning. I don’t know what he can accomplish, but the first thing is to be playing well enough to get good results and even wins st smaller tournaments. Then maybe he can take the next step when it comes to the more important tournaments.

  2. In the first place Dimi didn’t call himself ‘baby Fed’! The term was given to him by those wishing for someone to come by to occupy the vacancy Fed would leave behind the day Fed retires from professional tennis (joining the senior tour probably).

    It’s unfair to compare him to Fed when he was an upstart at age 17 then. He’s being criticized for not meeting expectations but maybe the expectations were just being set too high!

    I do believe he’s more serious about his career now when he’s in his mid 20s, not too young anymore and not much time to waste. We can’t compare him to Tsonga in 2014 when Tsonga was older than what Dimi is now. Also, both Fed and Djoko are two/three years older now, with Fed already in decline and Djoko starting his so it’s the right time for Dimi to make his move up the rankings.

    I wish him well, when hes on song, he plays beautifully – powerful, fast, great serves and returns and deft volleys. I certainly prefer his and Kei’s game over Raonic’s; not that Raonic isn’t a good player, but his game (like Jerzy’s) can feel like taking penalty kicks in a football match, so hard to counter that serve plus their quick moves to the net.

      • Hawkeye,

        Yes, thank you for saying what I was going to say. There is certainly no reason to get defensive about it. No one ever said that Dimi gave himself that nickname. I don’t think it did him any favors because of putting higher expectations on him. I have no problem with Dimi’s game when he’s on. I merely stated that he has not as yet realized his potential. He seemed to be on the right track in 2014. I certainly hope he does well.

        Geez, some people can get touchy about anything

      • Nah I didn’t. Somebody said he should focus on being himself, I doubt he wasn’t doing that all along! And it’s not like he’s letting the term ‘baby Fed’ bothering him, it’s more to do with his personal life that he lost focus.

        Not everything is smooth sailing so don’t expect Dimi to realize his full potential right away.

        • Hint: Within this context, we can DEFINITELY compare him to Tsonga (or any other reasonably player who’s managed to put it together for one tournament).

          Heck, even Thomas Johansson did it for a whole slam at DimDim’s age and did little else before and after.

          Only time will tell.


          • I dont think I can agree with you. In all likelihood, Dimi is getting serious with his career again and this might just be the beginning. We’ll see.

  3. Here’s the million dollar question … is he satisfied? is the pressure off? he was very focused and motivated in that tournament … the consistency was a result of mental focus and preparation … does he show up at the next event feeling relaxed and lose to players whose day-to-day game is better than his, or does he show up hungry again and focused on winning … I feel the difficult draw helped him … I think Dimitrov steps it up against better players and has trouble elevating his game against weaker opposition …

  4. He’s gone back to his roots in his spare time to find the happiness and sharper focus he needs on court 😉

    “I’m the kind of guy that I cannot just lock myself in the room and just think tennis for 24 hours. It hasn’t helped me,” he said. “And since I have been here, every night I’ve been going to the arcades, for example, for an hour and a half, been playing arcades. It’s given me tremendous joy.

    “That’s why I say those, I think, these 10 days that I have been here — I don’t remember having so much fun, but in the same time I was very focused, played quite solid all the matches. So I was just — overall, I just felt good.”

    His physical gifts and abilities were never in question. And the “Baby Fed” label hasn’t helped him. I’m not sure how long the Valverdu effect and arcade games will work for him.

    We might have to get used to him winning for awhile, Hawkie…

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