Touted as the next big thing in men’s tennis for several years now, Grigor Dimitrov has brought a smooth touch and distinctive flair to the game at a time when more and more power-hitters seem to be rising through the ranks.
He was as high as No 8 in the world rankings last year after making the Wimbledon semi-finals but has dropped to his current position of 17 after an inconsistent 2015. He’s hoping to cap a topsy-turvy grand slam season with a strong showing at the US Open in New York this fortnight.
Here the Bulgarian discusses his early years in the sport, his life on tour and his thoughts on the US Open.
When did you recognise that you had a special talent for the game?
I never thought I was going to make a career out of tennis, to be honest, until I was 10 or 11 years old. One of my earliest memories is when I was seven and I was competing against players that were three, four years older than me. I didn’t take it too seriously at the time. I was having a lot of fun.
But then I realised that I could do some trick shots and was actually pretty good. So I felt like I could do something with the sport. And when I was around 11 or 12, I actually won one of my first big tournaments.
When I came back home, I just felt like, ‘you know what? I think I’m just going to give it the best shot possible’. The next thing you know, I’m on top of the game.
Was there ever a time when you didn’t think you would be a tennis player?
I come from a very sporty family. My mom is a former volleyball player. My father was my tennis coach. So for me, I think it was inevitable to be a sportsman. I was just taking what I was destined to do, I guess.
I didn’t think twice about anything else and as soon as I was into the sport, it was definitely a one-way street. I didn’t even think about what I would do in case this thing didn’t work out for me. I knew deep down that I was going to succeed.
Starting at such an early age, who were the players that you looked up to?
Well, we had only four or five channels. And one of my most vivid memories is a match between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Those were my heroes. I would look up to them and I could sort of relate to both of them.
Andre, with his character, and then Pete because he had a one-handed backhand and was a really aggressive player. So I was really focusing on them early on. Not that I had much of a choice anyway, but those guys were definitely my inspiration.
When you play, what type of emotions do you experience?
It depends on the match. Tennis is such a fun game. One of the things that I really like is that everything depends on you. Before certain matches, you might have those butterflies, but that’s the excitement. There’s a ton of emotion that you’re going through.
— Piers Newbery (@piersnewbery) August 29, 2015
One of the secrets is to be able to control those emotions coming into every match. There’s just a ton of emotion going through you. I think that’s the beauty of it.
Do you have any rituals that help you prepare for a match?
There’s a bunch of things that I like to do before a match. For example, I use the same shower. I always shower in the same spot in the shower the day before. I always put my Nike gear on the same way. I put a wristband on my right side. I’d say right shoe first all the time, double socks as well.
Does playing at an elite level require a particular type of attitude?
Attitude, confidence, everything – you need to have all of that. Sometimes you wake up and nothing goes well for you. Your warm-up is not good. You haven’t slept well. Your shots are not there.
But if you have the right approach to those kind of moments and you feel strongly about yourself and what you believe in and what you’ve worked for, I think all that edge comes back to you. You know, it’s show time. You always need to have that edge, no matter what match you’re playing.
In the past you’ve mentioned making your own luck. What does that mean for you?
You know, if you hit a shot sometimes and it just gets in, in the moment that you need it, I don’t call that luck. Even if I touch the net and the ball comes on the other side, I don’t count that as luck because before that I’ve hit tons of balls to make that shot work. In that particular moment, things are designed to pay off for you.
And I think that this is how you make your own luck. It’s also the work you put in. Of course, the attitude and all those components are like a little puzzle. Once you’re starting to put them together, you get the luck.
How does the US Open compare to the other three grand slams? What would winning it mean to you?
The US Open is definitely one of the most attractive events of the year. This is basically when everything is hyped up around you. You can see the US Open banners all around New York on all the cabs, buses and all that. You strive for that moment.
All I want to do is win it. And if that happens one day, I don’t know how it would feel. It’s going to be a new feeling for me and hopefully I can describe that better when I have the trophy in my arms.
Many of tennis’ biggest tournaments are held in different parts of the world, making travel a serious issue. Do you like travelling? How do you deal with it?
I have to like travelling, as I’m travelling over 25 weeks a year. So the one thing I never go without is definitely my iPad and a couple of books.
On long flights, I always wear Tech Fleece, which are awesome. They feel so good when you fly. I’m also really a gadget guy, so I would probably have a lot of cables, headphones. But that’s about it. I think I can live without everything else.
You’re really into music. Who are you listening to today?
I like The Weeknd a lot. I still haven’t gone to any of his concerts, but that’s definitely on my list. I like a lot of R&B music. But it depends on the mood.
When I get treatment, I like to listen to something slower. And then when I wake up in the morning and have a shower, you’re trying to pump yourself up to start the day with a big smile and a lot of excitement. So maybe you switch to a little bit of hip-hop. So it depends on the day for me. But I have a good list.
You grew up in Bulgaria, you spent time in Barcelona, and now you’re here in Los Angeles, all of which are very different places. How do you like L.A.?
I left Bulgaria when I was really young, so in a way I couldn’t really explore everything. I would definitely want to do that one day. But I’ve moved to so many places and I adapt pretty quickly to every place I’ve been. That said, L.A.’s been nice. It’s been really good to me. I like to be close to the water.
I like that area out here, because I think it’s very laid-back, which is what I need. Especially when you come home after four, five weeks of travelling in tough tournaments. It’s very nice to just take it easy for a little bit.
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