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Grigor Dimitrov interview: How he shook off ‘Baby Fed’ label to grow in tennis and in life

A decade has passed since Grigor Dimitrov announced himself to the wider tennis world. It was the summer of 2014, and in the space of a few weeks, Dimitrov won the title at Queen’s and beat defending champion Andy Murray at Wimbledon, to reach the semifinals. He was 23 — gregarious, glamorous and the boyfriend of tennis royalty in Maria Sharapova.

Such was Dimitrov’s talent and magnetism that he was quickly hailed as the future of the sport. With his silky-smooth technique and single-handed backhand, he was even given the nickname “Baby Fed” — no small name to live up to, at a time when Roger Federer had already won seven of his eight Wimbledon titles.

It’s a comparison that Dimitrov came to strongly dislike.

“Honestly, I found it funny at the beginning, and then I started… not hating it but I didn’t like it because there was no point to it,” he tells The Athletic 10 years on from that spectacular summer. “We’re so different and we have some resemblances but we’re really not the same people and I think it was so unnecessary. One wish I would have for a young kid is not to be compared to someone. I think it was probably one of the worst things I had to deal with in my career.

“I never liked it and it never brought me any good. Of course I’m flattered but I always wanted to be my own person.”

A decade on from his first Grand Slam semifinal, still the furthest he has ever gone at a major, Dimitrov’s story arc has an enticingly simple shape that is not representative of everything that constitutes it. From a distance, it appears to trace a classic case of someone being overhyped, unable to fulfil their rich potential: a player who made three Grand Slam semifinals and four further quarterfinals, but never kept the promise of winning one.

In reality, it’s more complicated, illustrated by the fact that Dimitrov will arrive at Wimbledon next week looking rejuvenated and, despite a disappointingly early exit at Queen’s last week, playing possibly the best and most consistent tennis of his career since the dog days of summer 2014. There have been notable highs as well as the crushing lows in the Bulgarian’s last decade: Dimitrov reached those other Grand Slam semifinals, at the Australian Open in 2017 and the US Open in 2019, and after that January 2017 run in Melbourne, he ended the year by winning the ATP Finals and securing a career-high ranking of No 3.

Now, he is back in the world’s top 10 for the first time in six years; 2024 has brought his first title since 2017 and a final in Miami that he reached by dismantling Carlos Alcaraz along the way.

He has been one of the tour’s most reliable performers all year, reaching the quarterfinals at Roland Garros in May to make it a last-eight appearance at all four Grand Slam tournaments, even if the nature of his ultimate exit, a heavy straight-sets defeat to Jannik Sinner, felt disappointingly reminiscent of many of his defeats in the latter stages of Grand Slams: a loss to a higher-ranked and ultimately better player.

Back in 2014, that was also the story of his Wimbledon semi-final defeat to Novak Djokovic, and even if a decade on he is not the Grand Slam champion that everyone assumed he would become, at 33 that door is not yet closed. At Wimbledon, he will be among a select few top players who feels comfortable on grass.  

“It’s been great so far,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of things right, and I feel in a good place.”

A strong end to 2023 foreshadowed Dimitrov’s positive 2024, including a semifinal and a final at the Shanghai and Paris Masters respectively. Those results brought him a year-end ranking of No 14, comfortably his best since 2017; in the intervening seven years, his year-end ranking has bobbed frustratingly between No 19 and No 28.

Dimitrov puts his upturn down to a combination of factors: a new coaching team; a change in mentality; and learning to best deploy the fitness and experience he has accumulated over his 16-year professional career.

Dimitrov has been working with Andy Murray’s former coach Jamie Delgado since the end of 2022, when he also brought back former charge Dani Vallverdu. Vallverdu is another of Murray’s previous coaches, and a man with whom Dimitrov has tended to enjoy his best results.

“Jamie’s been amazing,” Dimitrov says.

“He has so much experience, that he really helps me to look at myself from a different perspective. That automatically gives me a good mentality to look forward and experience the game a bit differently.”

Dimitrov adds that he’s always been self-critical, ever since he was a kid being put through his paces by his dad. “I get very hard on myself and he (Delgado) is the one who always keeps me on a good level, to navigate myself a bit more.”

The highlight of 2024 so far was a 6-2, 6-4 thumping of then Wimbledon, and now French Open, champion Alcaraz in the Miami quarter-finals in March. The shellshocked Spaniard said afterwards that: “He made me feel like I’m 13 years old. It was crazy. I was talking to my team saying that I don’t know what I have to do. I don’t know his weakness.”

Dimitrov laughs when reminded of the “13 years old” quote, and says it was one of those rare matches when every single thing you try comes off. Coming from as skilled a shotmaker as Dimitrov, that rarity makes for one hell of a spectacle — including drop volleys on the stretch, screaming passing shots and return winners from both wings.

“I played an amazing match, it happens — when whatever you touch turns to gold,” Dimitrov says. “They’re very rare but when they come, take them, and that was one of those matches.

“I know that when I’m playing tennis like that it’s extremely difficult to beat me. There was a reason I got to the final of that tournament.”

What’s it like being in that kind of zone? “It’s the flow, a state of mind,” Dimitrov says.

“It’s very difficult to achieve. It’s happened to me more than a few times in a career, but it’s very difficult to tap into on a daily basis. One of those things that once you’ve experienced it, it sucks when it doesn’t come again. You get so frustrated with it.

“I’ve heard so many athletes from different sports saying they’ve had it, and then they’ve never been able to have it again. I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones, that I’ve been able to do it a few times in my career.

“When you activate that mode you know nothing can go wrong.”

To get to his current state of contentment, Dimitrov has had to endure some hardships.

The match that torments him the most is a five-set loss to Nadal in the Australian Open semi-final seven years ago. Even now Dimitrov can’t understand how he didn’t win, to the point that he misremembers what actually happened. In Dimitrov’s telling, “I was 4-2 up in the fifth,” but he wasn’t — the closest he got was two break points at 4-3 which would have left him serving for the match. Both of which were saved not by Dimitrov mistakes, but by Nadal playing out of his mind.

“The match with Rafa took me seven or eight months to get over,” Dimitrov says.

“I often felt like there were invisible powers that tipped it over. I was 4-2 up in the fifth and played an amazing… there was no way I could lose the match, and yet I lost the match.”

How did he finally get over it?

“Mental strength, overall,” Dimitrov says.

“You try to build on your own experiences, ask yourself questions. I’ve always been a believer that you have to speak to someone — whether it’s professionals, family or friends — I think it’s a vital thing for us to do and that should come from within yourself. Talking doesn’t mean anything unless you make the first step.”

He ultimately rebounded in style, winning the 2017 ATP Finals that November — the biggest title of his career and his last until triumphing in Brisbane in January this year. Casting his mind further back, Dimitrov says that he is “a completely different person and player” from his original breakout in 2014.

The perception of him at that time was one of pure showbusiness. He was already rumoured to have dated Serena Williams when his relationship with Sharapova helped to make him one of the most talked-about players on the tour. Now, Dimitrov is philosophical about the direction his career has taken and what he’s learned from the last 10 years.

“A lot has changed,” he says. “There comes a point where I had to make some tough decisions on and off the court.

“Sometimes with my coaching team, sometimes there were things I had to focus on outside of tennis. It’s life. For me, part of growing as a human is you have basic experiences, which I didn’t really have, being a tennis player.

“I always wanted to make sure that I did have those things and maybe that’s why at times they were taking me away from the game. But I definitely don’t regret it.”

Is that something away from the court?

“Things that don’t have much to do with the sport itself, which of course takes your mind away. Once your mind is going in a different direction, inevitably you get to a different place.”

Having spent so long navigating fulfilment on and off the court, does Dimitrov feel he has the right balance now?

“I think so, but I don’t like to say balance because what does that really mean?” he asks.

“To be the best in the sport you have to be obsessed, that’s how it is. To a point where you don’t have much margin for error. So when you look from that perspective, it’s pretty difficult.

“But I think I’m navigating myself better with things, and I also know that at the moment I’m way closer to the end than the beginning, and that also gives you a very different perspective.”

Because of Dimitrov’s geniality off the court — he’s a very popular locker-room presence — and his lack of killer instinct in some of his biggest matches, it’s been tempting to characterise him as someone lacking ruthlessness. He doesn’t feel that way.

“If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be here right now. And I think to have it something must have happened with you — like a bad experience that pushes you over the edge, that after you’re like, ‘OK, we’re on now.’

“I had that, of course. Both on and off the court. I had many of those experiences and I’m very grateful for them. Some of them have been extremely hard but it’s part of the game and part of life. I always link the game, our sport, to our life. I think they go hand-in-hand — it teaches you life as well.”

Part of that hand-in-hand relationship has led him to consider his views on what it means to be selfish and ruthless as a tennis player, whether in pursuit of wider goals or individual points, while still knowing how to behave. “Selfishness (for an athlete) goes without saying but it’s a fine line between it being a bad kind and a good kind,” he says. “I could have been more selfish with some decisions I had to make, but I’m contradicting myself a little bit because I always wanted to grow as a person, and now I’m kind of bitching on it.

“Ruthlessness, of course, that’s how it is. You want to win. You can be the nicest guy off the court but on it you can be a total… That’s the bit I find, I don’t know if it’s difficult with some players but I make sure I say something because I think it’s also vital for our sport to have a good etiquette in that way.”

Dimitrov takes his role as one of the more experienced heads on the tour seriously. He is part of the ATP Player Advisory Council for the second year running and outside of Djokovic is the oldest player in the world’s top 20. Dimitrov believes that tapping into all the experience he has accumulated means that “of late I’ve been able to win some matches maybe I shouldn’t”.

He also says he’s learned not to bother competing unless he’s ready to give everything. “The place where I’m at in my career, I have the luxury that I can pick and choose,” he says. That also allows him to be always looking for an edge, with more time to put any benefits into practice. He’s recently started working with a sleep consultant to help with one of the most important, and often overlooked, areas of a player’s wellbeing.

Outside of tennis, Dimitrov enjoys pursuing his passion for art collection. “I have developed a very good relationship with some galleries — in England, in LA, so it’s been a really interesting time for me,” he says. Living in Monte Carlo, Dimitrov also enjoys driving cars and motorbikes; the relentlessness of the tennis circuit means he can only get back to his native Bulgaria two or three times a year.

For the moment, Dimitrov’s focus is on maintaining the good start he’s made to 2024 at Wimbledon. “This period is always a bit more tricky, with a few tough tournaments,” he says. “It’s the time of the year when you have to give everything you have.”

(Top photos: Shi Tang; Paul Gillam / Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic)

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