How Did Grigor Dimitrov Become the First of the Lost Generation to Find His Way?
Grigor Dimitrov’s ATP Finals win was the biggest victory yet for a member of men’s tennis’ lost generation, made up of the Bulgarian, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, and David Goffin, all currently aged 26-27, all heralded from 2012-2014 as the ATP’s young guns, and all seeming to have lost their way in their bid to fulfill their potential. Dimitrov, however, with his ATP 1000 Cincy win and his ATP Finals trophy, has, in styles both pretty and gritty, finally found his way in the cruel world of men’s tennis, but just how has the new world No.3 managed to do achieve something the equally impressive talents of Raonic, Nishikori and Goffin have not?
In the period after 2014, when Dimitrov and co were lauded as the Young Guns, it seemed Dimitrov was the most lost of them all, seemingly succumbing to the curse of Baby Fed. While Nishikori reached a slam final at the US Open ’14 and competed for two ATP 1000 titles in 2016 (Miami, Toronto) and Milos Raonic reached world No.3 at the end of 2016, Dimitrov fell down the rankings from a career high of 8 in August ’14, falling as far as 40 (18th July 2016) within two years at an age he should have been gearing towards his peak.
That low was rock bottom enough for Dimitrov who, teaming up with Daniel Vallverdu, who had worked with Andy Murray and coached Tomas Berdych, then went on to reach the Cincy semis and the US Open last 16 to climb back into the top 20, and finish 2016 at No.17.
That rise really gathered momentum at the start of 2017. His peers may have had the higher rankings- Raonic ranked No.3, Nishikori No.5, and Goffin No.11- but it was Dimitrov who produced the highest quality of play as he won Brisbane, beating Nishikori in the final and Raonic in the semis, and then reached the Australian Open semis, defeating Goffin in straights in the quarters before playing, arguably, the match of the year versus Rafa Nadal, and climbing to world No.13.
— Grigor Dimitrov (@GrigorDimitrov) January 9, 2017
In his next event, Dimitrov defeated Goffin in the Sofia final and then reached the last eight in Rotterdam, losing to Goffin in three sets.
But while Dimitrov’s great start to 2017 may have got fan’s hopes up that he had finally discovered just how good a player he was, knew where he belonged and was finally ready to become a top five player, his losses to Jack Sock in the Indian Wells second round, in which he held four match points, and to Guido Pella in his Miami opener, and his 4-5 record in the clay season (though he did play a very competitive fourth round match versus Thiem in Madrid) cast doubts over just how ready he really was. Slow hard courts and clay may not be the surfaces on which Dimitrov can really show off his talents, but failing to get past the round of 16 in seven consecutive events suggested Dimitrov had not really found himself at all and that he was still the most inconsistent of his generation.
Those concerns deepened when Dimitrov also disappointed in the Grass season, the 2014 Wimbledon semi-finalist and Queens champion getting off to a bad start in Stuttgart losing to Jerzy Janowicz in his opener and going 6-3 for the entire grass court season, There was a degree of silver lining, however, in the often cloudy British skies with the Bulgarian losing to an in form Feliciano Lopez in the Queens semis, motivated by his own tough loss to Dimitrov in the 2014 Queens final, and to an imperious Roger Federer in the Wimbledon last 16 and not being defeated by players he should have beaten.
After more early losses in Washington and Montreal, Dimitrov’s game finally clicked again, in Cincy, where he won the title, defeating Nick Kyrgios, a member of the #NextGenATP generation, one which looked to eclipse his own, in the final. Dimitrov did not have to beat anyone ranked higher than 19 (John Isner) to win the trophy, so he was a little luckier than Nishikori and Raonic who faced Djokovic and Nadal in their ATP 1000 finals, but he was also in new, and in some respects even scarier, territory for any of the lost generation able to get that deep in an ATP 1000 event- the favorite in every match en route to, and including the championship match itself, an ATP 1000 final.
Ranked 11, Dimitrov was the highest ranked player in each of his matches, and playing the likes of del Potro and Isner, two players with plenty of experience and armed with match winning shots on US hard courts, and with plenty of crowd support, Dimitrov could have folded under the pressure. Instead, Dimitrov held strong, and won the title without dropping a set, thriving in the Cincy conditions which, like Brisbane and Melbourne,, was a faster hard court played in the heat, and which played to Dimitrov’s strengths- his serve, his speed around the court, his aggression, and his reflexes and flair.
Another strength Dimitrov could draw on was the training he did with Rafa Nadal in the Summer in Mallorca, the Bulgarian noting Nadal’s positive body language when winning or losing, an area Dimitrov once struggled in, suffering a particularly bad tempered defeat in the 2016 Istanbul final where in a match he led by a set and 5-2, he lost 0-6 in the third after defaulting the last game after a third penalty for racket abuse.
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) July 24, 2017
But while Dimitrov was composing himself a lot better than he had, he still could not control his fluctuations in form. True to form for Dimitrov’s career, his peak was followed by a sudden dip as, in the favorable conditions of New York, the Bulgarian lost in straights to the 19 year old Andrey Rublev in the second round.
Surface, however, is where the similarities end between Cincy and New York, and it seemed the biggest of tennis stages was still too frightening for the 2008 US Open Boy’s champion. Dimitrov, however, was not the only players of his generation to fail to find their form in the biggest 2017 events. In fact, he was one of the only ones who even made it to New York with Raonic and Nishikori both absent with injury. Meanwhile Goffin also fell to Rublev, in the last sixteen.
In a season of stops and starts, Dimitrov, encouragingly, picked up his game again, and at a much quicker pace than he had after Wimbledon ’14 or Sofia ’17, putting together several strings of wins in the end of season swing, going 14-4, losing twice to Nadal, once to Isner, and once to Sock, and going undefeated on his winning run at the ATP Finals.
At the ATP finals, just as in Cincy, Dimitrov did not have to beat any of the Big Four or his two biggest generational rivals. The Bulgarian, instead, had to beat Thiem, Goffin (twice), Busta, and Sock. That lack of established top level competition, however, is not Dimitrov’s fault. The very fact Dimitrov was there, qualifying for and playing the event, was, however, down to him, and while Raonic and Nishikori have, for the time being, been sidelined with injury, Dimitrov was still out there on court, one of the healthiest and fittest professionals playing tennis right now, an achievement that is also down to his coach, Danny Vallverdu, who, after his charge’s ATP Finals win, spoke highly of Dimitrov’s hard work and dedication to reaching his potential.
I want to thank my entire team for the relentless support this past year. It has been an incredible journey and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. This was complete a team victory!
— Grigor Dimitrov (@GrigorDimitrov) November 22, 2017
Dimitrov is not just physically one of the fittest men on the tour, either, but mentally, too. Despite some high quality performances versus Busta and Goffin in the round robin stage, Dimitrov did not have everything his way in London, having to defeat Thiem in three sets in his opener, and Sock, against whom he had a losing head to head against, and Goffin in three sets in the semis and the final. The Bulgarian came through in all those close contests, proving to be the more focused player in big matches, and in the final, when under pressure from Goffin, Dimitrov did not panic and showed us he had a B plan to fall back on if he cannot execute plan A, a B plan that held up to the pressure put on him by his rival, a hallmark of the mentally toughest players.
The Bulgarian had been criticized when working with Roger Rasheed for sometimes being too defensive, but with Goffin taking aggressive risks in the final, no doubt to avoid another demolition like the one he suffered at Dimitrov’s hands in the round robin stage, those Dimitrov defensive skills, perhaps implemented with clashes like this in mind, came to the fore as the Bulgarian focused on getting the ball back in play and making Goffin take the match to him, a strategy that paid off as Goffin’s attack let him down at crucial points and Dimitrov won the match not with the pretty tennis we had hoped to see, but with the kind of gritty tennis needed.
Dimitrov’s ability to execute a plan B successfully is one aspect which separates Dimitrov from Raonic and Nishikori. Raonic has worked hard to add depth to his game, but is still very much reliant on his serve and while Nishikori may have one of the sport’s most effective modern baseline A games, when he is in trouble, his B game seems to be hit the ball even harder and he over-hits himself into an even quicker defeat. Goffin, meanwhile, has a plan B, the more attacking tennis he showed in the ATP Finals championship match, but he is not practiced enough at executing it to really make it count, as his fluffed volley match point down demonstrated.
Superior fitness, a stronger mind, dedication to his sport, a lot of support, and a hell of a lot of talent, Dimitrov finally put all the pieces together this season and became the first of the lost generation to find himself. There is still far to go for Dimitrov to become the player he seems destined to be, to find the form and strength needed to win a slam title and earn the No.1 ranking, and, considering his fluctuations in form, no one should get their hopes up that he will get there anytime as soon as next season. Still, even if his career ended today- a world No.3, ATP Finals champ, ATP 1000 champ, and two time slam semi-finalist- it’s a career many players would take. A career, we hope, Dimitrov is not going to settle for, that he will, instead, keep searching for more.
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