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.