If there’s one player who has no qualms about honestly expressing his feelings, it’s Grigor Dimitrov.
Midway through the 2016 season the talented Bulgarian sat in a small interview room at Roland Garros following a third consecutive first-round exit at the tournament and confessed he was feeling “insecure”, saying his dip in form was “scary”.
The 26-year-old spent years living in the shadow of the nickname ‘Baby Fed’, knowing his elegant playing style resembled that of Roger Federer. But such comparisons rarely ever benefit the up-and-coming player trying to break through. If anything, the pressure can be suffocating.
But it’s safe to say that those days are firmly behind Dimitrov, who this year is not just breathing easily, he is flying.
He’s is up to No. 6 in the world rankings, has won his maiden Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati, is the first Bulgarian to qualify for the ATP Finals, and on Wednesday, he crushed David Goffin 6-0, 6-2 to reach the semi-finals at the season finale in London.
“It was just about fighting with my demons to find the right path to be consistent enough. I think the best is yet to come,” Dimitrov told reporters at the O2 earlier this week about his journey.
So what were those demons he was referring to?
“I wish I could tell you, I really, I really wish, off the record,” Dimitrov laughed as he sat down with Sport360 in London.
“I think growing up there’s so many things going through your head especially when you want to do well and you try so hard and you fail and all that.
“So I think you can gather a little bit of that from that info what it might have been. Honestly these things are in the past right now, I don’t like to live in the past.”
Teaming up with Venezuelan coach Dani Vallverdu a little over a year ago was obviously a big help but there’s more to Dimitrov’s transformation than a simple coaching switch.
“There was a period of time that I felt I learned a lot about myself, about tennis and just everything in general,” he explains.
“And I think that really helped me and sort of propelled me to be a bit more… I mean I’ve always been upbeat and happy but to appreciate it a little bit more, not to take things for granted and every time I’m out there to compete is to really give it 100 per cent because you just never know if you’re going to have another day of that or maybe not so… you try to make the most out of it and in my case, this is I guess where I’m heading right now.
“Every loss hurts more and every win I appreciate more. So I think those are some of the sort of good demons right now that I try to embrace. I just want to use everything to my advantage, from mental aspect, to physical, to the way you eat, how you do the recovery – I could just label all that with one simple word and that’s ‘discipline’.”
Dimitrov started the year with a stunning 16-1 run, that saw him win Brisbane (ending a two-and-a-half-year title drought) and Sofia, and reach the Australian Open semi-finals before losing a five-set heart-breaker to Rafael Nadal.
Nadal, the current world No. 1, picked that match as one of his top three of the season, and Dimitrov admits it was a tough pill to swallow.
Both of them landed in the same group at the ATP Finals but a rematch this week in London never materialised because Nadal withdrew from the tournament due to injury.
Dimitrov had spent some time with the Spaniard training in Mallorca at the Rafa Nadal Academy and of course that marathon match in Melbourne came up.
“We spent a great time together, practiced hard, off the court we had great fun, a couple of dinners, went on the boat, jumped from the boat, we just had fun, basically like two kids, even though he’s 30 (31) and I’m 26, I think for us those moments are so special,” said Dimitrov of his stint with Nadal in Spain.
“And I’m obviously glad to share them with such a player. I think I can learn a lot from him and get the chance to just talk. Not even on a tennis court or in a tennis environment. We played a few times against each other as well, so we’re a complete package right now.
“We even spoke a little bit about that match (at the Australian Open), it hurt me a little bit but he’s like ‘oh come on, forget about it’, but how can I forget about that? It’s unforgettable.
“But I’m an easy-going person, so for me I don’t have any bad thoughts or anything. Whatever we’re doing off the court, yes for sure it’s great, and I have no problem to share that. Obviously when you get on the court — it’s our competitive nature. We ultimately, I don’t wanna say hate each other, but we want to win. So I think that’s special and you don’t see that very often and I’m the type of person who is very easy-going with these things.
“And it’s good to have that competitive nature. And me and him, I think we’re finding that balance when we’re off the court, with our little jabs here and there, but that’s normal. We compete, we want to win, and yeah, whether I’m going to play him or another opponent I still want to win. So we’re going to put all the politeness aside if I play him and it’s on again.”
This isn’t Dimitrov’s first time in the top-10. He joined the game’s elite in 2014 after he reached his maiden Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon. But consistency was his Achilles’ heel and he was riddled with doubts in the following two seasons.
This year is a different story. He started 2017 strong and is finishing it in similar fashion. There is this fresh swagger he’s flaunting on court, and a philosophical air to his rhetoric off it.
So what’s making things so different for him this time around?
“I guess this time I’m not actually thinking about it,” he says.
“I’m just going a little bit with the flow. I’m just focusing on what I’m doing right now, I’m not thinking of the ranking or the points.
“Even before I even qualified here (for the ATP Finals), everybody was counting points and thinking of everything but not me, I said ‘the more I win, the better it would get’ and I think that’s what happened even towards that last match, when I got the call, it was like ‘you qualified’ and I had that bittersweet moment because I just lost the final in Stockholm.
“I don’t think I appreciated it at the time to be honest but as soon as I realised that a couple of days later I was like ‘wow, I’m going to play there’.
“So I got the excitement going on again and walked into the doors a week ago and I was like ‘wow, I feel this is where I belong and this is what I’ve been working so hard for’.”
Dimitrov is good friends with Federer off the court, and if you haven’t seen them singing together in their ‘One-handed Backhand Boy Band’ you’re lucky yet somehow missing out at the same time.
Federer has seen Dimitrov’s evolution and echoes some of the Bulgarian’s thoughts on how it happened.
“I would think he’s just more comfortable this time around,” Federer said on Tuesday.
“He feels probably he belongs there, he deserves his place there. It’s like when you get older, you feel like you’ve had to work for it. The first time around, it’s like, it just happened. Oh, wow, cool. I know I worked hard, but probably others have worked harder than me.
“I don’t want to say you don’t feel you deserve to be there sometimes, unless you’re three in the world, you go deep into the top-10. If you just touch it at No. 8, No. 9, you feel like everybody looks at you, depending on your ranking, that week. The next week, if you’re 11, you think the other guys look at you differently, even though it doesn’t matter at all.
“We are very much ranking-conscious early on in our life. Maybe this time he’s like, ‘Okay, I’m 6, 7’, whatever he is now, and he feels, ‘Well, I’m in there for a while, I will be for a while, so maybe I can relax more’.
“He’s always had fun on and off the court. So I think he just feels probably more confident in this whole thing.
“I went through the same situation, to be quite honest. Through success, I calmed down a little bit and felt like I knew myself and knew my place better.”
When you Google ‘Baby Fed’, Dimitrov’s results immediately come up.
But it’s fair to say Dimitrov, and the tennis world, have long moved on from that.
He’s into the last four at the ATP Finals and is officially ready for the big time.
The Swiss No.2 seed squandered a break early in the second set as Zverev upped the ante to force a decider.
They had split their four previous meetings prior to this week but it was Federer who dug deep into his reserves to pull away with two breaks for a 5-1 lead in the third set. He secured passage to the knockouts with a third break courtesy of a Zverev double fault, which was the young German’s 45th unforced error of the match.
“It was a tough group so I’m happy I got through in two matches,” said Federer after the win, adding that he was pleased he can play freely in his next round-robin match against Marin Cilic.
With 16 years separating the two players, you wouldn’t expect them to have already started a budding rivalry.
Yet tennis often knows no age and the Federer-Zverev match-up is already proving to be a blockbuster affair.
After Jack Sock defeated Cilic in a third-set tiebreak earlier in the day, all Federer needed was a win to guarantee a spot in the final four.
Zverev, the youngest top-three players since Novak Djokovic in 2007, will now have to fight off Sock on Thursday for a place in the semi-finals.
“I like what I’m seeing with Sascha. I see somebody who is working towards the future,” Federer said of Zverev. “I think, yes, of course it’s really important right now to have success. He had that with two massive wins in Rome and Montreal. I mean, that’s going to protect his season anyways. The rest sort of is all a bonus.
“What I like to see is I feel like they’re working towards how he could be playing when he’s 23, 24 years old in terms of fitness, planning, organisation, all these things. I think that’s nice to see.
“What I like about Zverev is he’s got the full package. He’s already three in the world. I think he’s going to leave the World Tour Finals, regardless if he qualifies for the semis or not, with a lot of information.
“I think the last six months of the season gave him everything he needs to work forward to. Then, of course, he’s only going to get stronger from here. That should be very encouraging for him and his team.”
On his part, Zverev is confident about his upcoming decisive match with Sock.
“I think I still have great chances of qualifying, playing Jack Sock next. I think if I continue having this level, I don’t know, maybe you’ll see me on the weekend still,” he said.
Japan, USA, Bulgaria, Poland… No matter the nation, Roger Federer is certain to have a legion of fans hailing from it.
He is the universal brand everyone wants a piece of and his tennis fans are as loyal as they come.
We spoke to some of the Swiss legends’ aficionados outside the O2 Arena in London, where Federer is gunning for a seventh ATP Finals title.
Check out the video above to meet some of his biggest supporters.