Barely 12 months ago, a dejected Grigor Dimitrov sat in a small interview room at Roland Garros following a disappointing first round exit and spoke about his struggles, how he felt insecure on the court, and how it got “scary” sometimes.
He seemed lost, sad, and unsure about how to turn things around.
It is now a year later and Dimitrov is in a far better place. He’s ranked No12 – 24 spots higher than he was at the French Open in 2016 – has won two titles this season, in Brisbane and Sofia, and reached the Australian Open semi-finals in January.
The 25-year-old Bulgarian, who came through a tricky opener against Philipp Kohlschreiber in Madrid on Monday, and faces Ivo Karlovic in round two on Wednesday, has found the confidence that deserted him last year and is happy to leave that difficult chapter behind him.
“It’s been a great journey, I’m always the type of guy that appreciates the journey more than the final destination,” Dimitrov told Sport360° in the Spanish capital of his path over the last 12 months.
“Of course the year itself speaks for itself, so at the same time I don’t want to go back, I just want to own up to what I had to own up to, and face everything that was in front of me in those tough times.
“So yeah, that’s what it is right now. We have three more tournaments until the end of the clay court season, so hopefully that’s going to pay off good for me. I always wanted to play good on clay and have good results. I’m just going to keep up this form and stay focused.”
One of the changes Dimitrov made after a disappointing period last year, that included a bizarre six-match losing streak midseason, was parting ways with Franco Davin and hiring Dani Vallverdu as his coach.
Vallverdu, who used to be Andy Murray’s hitting partner and assistant coach and spent time working with Tomas Berdych, and very briefly with Juan Martin del Potro, seems to play a significant factor in Dimitrov’s surge this year.
Dimitrov admits that having a solid team around him has been key.
“There were a lot of things I had to accept. Change the way I was practicing, the whole team is set right now, everybody knows their spot, everybody knows what they have to do and that’s what they work for, to be me in the best possible position for me in order to go out there and give 100 per cent,” he explained.
“So far in the year, it’s been going great. I haven’t had any injuries, everything has been going well. I had the virus (recently) and all that, a little setback is needed sometimes in a way, I accept it and move forward…
He added: “I accept any obstacle that I have in front of me right now. And focus on each match, each point, each practice, each rehab, everything that is required of me. All my team is working behind the scene to put me in that position so that’s all I can ask for right now.”
At a charity event for children Grigor Dimitrov got down with the dancing!! 😀😍 pic.twitter.com/xlRkIYpQXQ— LaWanda (@lawanda50) April 29, 2017
Clay is not necessarily Dimitrov’s most successful surface – only one of his six titles has come on the red dirt – but his winning record on it (59.5%) is quite similar to his success rate on grass (59.6%) and hard courts (60.6%).
“I always have high expectations of myself. I didn’t start the clay season that well so I’m trying to lower my expectations a little bit so I can accept playing whoever I have to play. The first rounds here are already tough enough. You just got to look for those moments and do everything you can from your side, that’s the only thing I can ask for,” he said.
Dimitrov is 3-2 head-to-head against Karlovic, who saved four match points en route to a 7-6(4), 6-7(9), 7-6(7) win over Roberto Bautista Agut on Tuesday.
A grieving Nick Kyrgios advanced to the second round of the Madrid Open on Monday with a 7-6 (1), 6-4 win over Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis.
The 22-year-old Aussie had pulled out of the Estoril Open last week so he could attend his grandfather’s funeral in Canberra and only made it to Madrid after he was urged by his family to play.
He fired 14 aces and faced zero break points in his 77-minute win over Baghdatis, but confessed that it’s been difficult keeping his head in the game so soon after his grandfather’s passing.
“It was tough, obviously a lot going on the last week and a half. I haven’t really trained much, it was really tough,” Kyrgios told Sport360° after the match.
“Didn’t really know if I was going to play this week. I didn’t really have high expectations this week. I feel very rusty on the court, I played some doubles yesterday with Jack (Sock), he somehow carried me for the win there. I’m happy to be back out here but obviously my mind isn’t fully invested in tennis at the minute. It’s tough.”
Asked on what pushed him to play Madrid, the young Aussie said: “I guess family. Just my family. They thought ‘you should play, you’ve got a lot of big tournaments coming up’. It was a tough decision. Honestly I wanted to stay home. But ultimately I’m a tennis player, so you know I can’t keep missing tournaments I guess.”
Kyrgios, seeded No16 in the Spanish capital where he awaits either Bernard Tomic or Ryan Harrison in the second round, is having a strong 2017 where he has amassed a 16-4 win-loss record, has made the semi-finals in Marseille, Acapulco, and Miami, and has beaten Novak Djokovic twice.
The world No20 remains uncertain about his own expectations this clay swing but remains hopeful he can replicate the success he’s had earlier in the season.
“Honestly I don’t know yet. I’m just trying to get through every day, one by one, and we’ll see. Hopefully if I’m playing the level I was playing about a month ago in the States, then you know I can do some good things,” said Kyrgios. “But we’ll see. I’m certainly not at that level at the moment. I haven’t really hit in the last two, three weeks, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Maria Sharapova rued her missed opportunities in her three-set defeat to Eugenie Bouchard in the Madrid Open second round on Monday and dismissed any suggestions that the hype around the match and around the Russian’s return to tennis may have been a distraction.
Sharapova faced off with Bouchard after the Canadian had called her a cheater who deserved a lifetime ban from the sport.
Bouchard, the Russian’s most vocal critic, admitted she had extra motivation to beat Sharapova, and was inspired by players who wished her luck in the locker room before the match. Sharapova however insists she remains unaffected by such comments.
“Not from my end. Every match at this point is important. I’m just one of the two players that’s out on the court. Everything that surrounds myself, I don’t really know a lot of it. I don’t pay attention to much of it,” she said when asked if the circus that has erupted around her since her return from suspension has been a distraction.
“I’ve been part of this game for many years. I know what the drill is. I know the excitement. I know there’s always a lot of talk and buzz, matchups, rivalries, news. It’s all part of the game. But at the end of the day, it’s just two athletes competing against each other, and I’m one of them. That’s how I treat this game.”
Sharapova was up a break in the first set before she dropped it to Bouchard and despite firing 44 winners, committed 49 unforced errors and could only convert five of the 15 break point opportunities she created.
“I definitely thought I should have taken care of the first set,” said Sharapova. “I had a letdown, being up a break. I was happy with the way I changed things around in the second, stepped in, was a little bit more aggressive inside the baseline. Then the third, kind of felt like it was a similar pattern: set up opportunities, breakpoints, and just did not convert them today.
“I absolutely don’t think I served smart today, especially when I was up, going for a few more free points, not getting myself in the rallies, which I thought I was winning most of the time.”
It was just Sharapova’s sixth match into her comeback from a 15-month doping ban. While she is undoubtedly grateful to be back competing again, the sting of defeat remains a big disappointment.
“I think I would be worried about myself if I sat here and said I’m pretty happy with losing a tennis match, no matter who I face, no matter what round it is, whether it’s the first round or final of a Grand Slam,” said Sharapova. “You know, I’m a big competitor. What you work for for so many hours every single day is to be on the winning end of matches. Today was just not that day.
“Of course, I’m disappointed. That’s what’s going to make me a better player. That’s what’s going to win me more tournaments and more Grand Slams.”