Grigor Dimitrov and the Curse of Baby Fed

Dimitrov

CC courtesy of Marianne Bevis at flickr.

Grigor Dimitrov’s first round loss to Jack Sock at the French Open is another in a string of disappointing defeats for the man nicknamed Baby Fed. The Tennis Review comments on how what was meant to be flattery has turned out to be a curse once more. 

It was always intended as a compliment. The Single handed backhand, the slice, the agile and powerful forehand, the fast and elegant footwork, the all court game, the touch at the net, the variety on the serve, the shot-making- it was all there. Onlookers could hardly not say it.

Baby-fed. The nickname given to a young Grigor Dimitrov when he entered the pro ranks in 2008, the reigning Wimbledon U.S Open Junior Champion and junior world no.1 at a time when Federer was No.1 and the reigning men’s champion in New York and London.

Dimitrov was not the first gifted player to earn that nickname. Richard Gasquet had been christened the son of Federer half a decade before.

Gasquet had been tipped for greatness since he was a young child, and seemed to be justifying those claims when in 2003 he became the youngest player ranked in the top 100.

That same year Federer would win his first slam at Wimbledon. When Gasquet beat Federer in a final set tiebreak in Monte Carlo in 2005, the 19 year old was tipped to challenge Federer at the top within the next few years.

But while Gasquet’s contemporary Rafael Nadal began beating Federer and winning slams, Gasquet struggled to get past the fourth round of the game’s biggest events, a semi-final at Wimbledon 2007 the furthest he reached during Federer’s dominant 2004-2007 period.

Baby-Fed is Born..again.

In 2008, Dimitrov hit the ATP world tour. The Wimbledon and U.S Open Junior Champion finished the year ranked in the top 500. The following season, Baby-fed qualified for the grass court event at the Nottingham Challenger and made the quarter-finals, beat 82nd ranked Ivan Navarro in the first round of Queens, and won the first set of his Wimbledon main draw first round match before retiring.

That was the year Federer completed the career Grand-Slam and won his sixth Wimbledon title. Federer and Dimitrov were both hitting headlines and the young Dimitrov was more commonly referred to as Baby-Fed than his own name.

In 2011, Dimitrov began to make a real name for himself though. Entering the year ranked 105, he qualified for and reached the Australian Open main draw and reached the fourth round. That win broke him into the top 100 and that year he won his first match at Wimbledon, and finished the season in the top 70.

Baby-Feds Battle

In 2012, Dimitrov faced Gasquet  for the second time (he lost to him in Dubai in 2011) in the second round of Roland Garros in a much heralded battle of the Baby-Feds. By that time, Gasquet, who had been banned from the tour for a few months in 2009 for his ‘cocaine kiss’ in a nightclub, was almost 25 and had not been past the fourth round of a slam since his 2007 Wimbledon last four run. The Frenchman won that intriguing match between the ‘baby-fed’ who had failed to live up to the name, and the one who was in the process of trying to do so. (Gasquet would win their third match that year in Bangkok in three sets.)

Gasquet would also win their 2013 Italian Open battle. By that time, things were looking good for both Baby-Feds. Gasquet had gotten back into the top ten in an era where many players did not reach their peak until their mid to late 20s, and Dimitrov was ranked 26 and had beaten world No.1 Novak Djokovic in Madrid a couple of weeks before.

Dimitrov would continue to improve, going on to win his first title in Stockholm at the end of the season, beating David Ferrer in the final.

Baby-Fed Rises

It seemed like a steady career trajectory was taking place. Dimitrov reached his first career slam quarter-final in Australia, won an ATP 500 tournament in Acapulco, won another title in Bucharest, won a grass title at Queen’s (which completed a set of titles on all surfaces within the last eight months) and beat defending champion Andy Murray at Wimbledon.

That match was very much Dimitrov’s coming out party. The slice, the forehand, the serve, the net skills, they were all dressed up and ready to be on show. They appeared again in the last four when he pushed Djokovic to four sets.

In August, Dimitrov broke into the top ten for the first time. Baby-Fed it seemed was no longer taking baby steps to fulfilling his potential but was very much up and running.

The Slump

Then Dimitrov slipped. He was upset in the U.S Open fourth round, soundly beaten by Djokovic in the Beijing quarters, lost his Stockholm title to Berdych in the final, and then lost consecutive straight sets matches to Federer in Basel and Murray in Paris.

The Bulgarian turned down an invitation to be an alternate in the London World Tour Finals and dedicated his off season to practicing, but when he returned in 2015, he suffered another heavy defeat to Federer, winning  just four games, in the Brisbane semi-finals. A couple of weeks later, he let a 5-2 fourth set lead slip against Murray in the Australian Open quarter-finals, and at 5-5, as he hit another error, he smashed his racket.

Early defeats continued to pile up- to Muller in the Rotterdam last sixteen in straight sets, to Harrison in the last sixteen of Acapulco, losing the third set 0-6, and the Robredo Indian Wells defeat where in the final game, serving to stay in the match, he threw in two double faults. Double faults at crucial moments came to haunt him in his defeat to Isner in Miami, too, when he threw one in to go 2-5 down in the second set, and handed Isner the opportunity to serve out for the match, which the game’s biggest server had no trouble doing.

Many theories circulate about why Dimitrov has not achieved what was predicted for him yet. Distracted by media duties, his off-court relationship with Maria Sharapova, his coaching relationship with Roger Rasheed, the pressure put upon him by being compared to a living legend still ranked No.2 are among them.

Whatever the reasons, we can only speculate. But what we do know is that Dimitrov is under-performing because his performance on-court is not the kind we saw from him between his win in 2013 Stockholm and his 2014 Wimbledon semi-final.

Dimitrov has been seen, much like Gasquet has over the years, camped at the baseline, or even beyond it, when his best tennis is produced inside the court, his aggressive instincts and touch allowed to flourish. Too many times he has lost matches he could have won, has crumbled when things got tight, has been passive when he should have been active.

At 23, Dimitrov still has time to become more than a nickname in tennis. There is, after all, plenty to be learned from all these defeats, and he could still emerge from this current slump a better player and win slams.

Federer did not live up to his potential for a while, suffering bad defeats and letting his emotions get the better of him. But by the time he was 23, Federer was comfortable in his own skin, had defeated his demons and won five slams.

Dimitrov has yet to reach a final. If he is to do so, then it is probably best for him to get as far away from the name Baby-Fed as he can. Perhaps that is why he has been losing so early so often. Hoping the defeats will make people forget the name they complimented him with, the people who christened him Baby-fed. Who cursed him.

The nickname did not help Gasquet, who now struggles with injury and is out of the top 20,  and it has not helped Dimitrov. The tennis fans and tennis media have to help him though. They have to stop asking him when he is going to be the next Federer. After all, there is only one Federer.

And there is only one Dimitrov.

As much as it is time for Dimitrov to step up and be himself, to play a timeless game that is his own as much as Federer’s, it is also time for the tennis world to let him.

Commentary by Christian Deverille.

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Do you think Grigor Dimitrov will fulfil his potential or do you think he will always be cursed by the nickname ‘Baby Fed’ like Gasquet has been? Please share your opinions below.

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