Freedom Of Expression
DEUCE US Open 2012
by Kate Flory|
The southern Bulgarian city of Haskovo has produced few notable natives. A revolutionary named Tane Nikolov in the 19th century, Stanimir Kolev Stoilov, who went on to be manager of the national football team, and now Grigor Dimitrov – one of the most prodigious talents on the ATP World Tour.
When his mother, Maria, handed him a racquet and ball aged five, it was love at first sight. Dimitrov was taught to wield the instruments by his father, Dimitar, a tennis coach, who remembers his son’s passion to play as an obsession. "Grigor was eager to learn. Any element that I was teaching, Grigor performed as easily as a painter drawing. His desire was to play tennis. He was obsessed, thinking and playing from sunrise to sunset. Maintaining his interest was not difficult for us."
An outstanding junior, with titles at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2008, Dimitrov began to work with Peter Lundgren at the start of 2009, after leaving Bulgaria for the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Paris.
So impressed was Lundgren that he was of a mind to liken the youngster, at the time ranked just inside the Top 350 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings, to his former star pupil, Roger Federer. It was a comment made with the best of intentions, but one that caught the imagination of the media. Suddenly, the world was watching Dimitrov’s development.
"The expectations put on him were much too big and for sure did not help him," observes current coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who took over the management of Dimitrov’s career at the start of the season. "It put unbelievable pressure on the shoulders of an 18-year-old kid who had not proven anything at a professional level. Grigor is very clever and sensible. He understands the situation and is now ready to move forward."
"I think you have to present yourself the way you are"
Looking back, Dimitrov remembers, "Of course it [brought extra pressure], but I think he did it in a good way. It’s a nice thing to hear, but that’s not the point. Sometimes it depends how much pressure you want to put on yourself and how much pressure you’re going to give yourself."
Indeed, Dimitrov is very much his own man. He can be a coach’s dream, but also a tactical nightmare. Described by his agent, Nina Wennerström, as "a happy, fun and spontaneous person, which is appreciated by the media, and with a charm and sincerity that the fans really like," Dimitrov is very much a believer in that same freedom of expression on the tennis court. It’s not hard to see why his style has been likened to that of the most successful player in the history of the game.
"I’m me!" declares Dimitrov to DEUCE. "I think you have to present yourself the way you are and I think that’s what most matters to me. As long as I play my game, I play the way I feel, the way I want to express myself on court. I think the most important thing right now is to really come out on court and play the game, each match, the way I want to play the game and the way I’m meant to play it."
With Mouratoglou at the helm, a certain amount of discipline and tactical nous has been instilled, but it has been a long learning curve. What the Frenchman terms "impatience", Dimitrov describes as "boredom" – an affliction under control now, but which did sprout problems as a creative but inexperienced junior.
"Not nowadays, thank God, but when I was a junior I got bored quite often so I was always doing some absolutely weird shots," Dimitrov told Tennis Podcast. "I don't know why I was doing them, even now. But first of all, that's life, and secondly you don't play the same match twice, so it's kind of fun!
"Everything is up to you, everything is in yourself," is his philosophy. "It doesn't matter how many times you come into a match with [the coaching team] telling you, 'Hey, you've got to do this, you've got to do that.’ It's more up to you. I listen to my inner voice. If I want to do it, I'll do it, if not? Well... I think it's very important to improvise. Sometimes one of the weirdest things can be the winningest shot."
Under Mouratoglou, it would seem that Dimitrov is learning to harness that streak of genius. "I believe that all the top players have something special," says the coach. "He needs to feel the freedom to let his creativity speak. He is currently learning to know and discover himself through all the aspects of a tennis player. He has to be himself on court as much as possible, even though he sometimes makes mistakes, because it is the way to feel his difference and make a strength out of it."
"He needs to feel the freedom to let his creativity speak"
In the past 18 months, Bernard Tomic, Ryan Harrison, Milos Raonic and Alexandr Dolgopolov have dominated the headlines as youngsters who have made their respective breakthroughs on the ATP World Tour. With his South African Airways ATP Ranking hovering between 50 and 80, Dimitrov had begun to slide off the radar somewhat. But 2012 has seen the 6’2’’ right-hander mature, understand his game and play to his strengths. The results followed swiftly.
At the AEGON Championships he reached his first ATP World Tour semi-final with victory over World No. 30 Kevin Anderson. It was a result that brought tears to his eyes and the celebratory hugs from his father and girlfriend, both sitting courtside. He would lose to David Nalbandian the following day, but key lessons had been learned from his four victories that week.
"When you go up with the big guys you realise that everyone is trying hard, everyone is playing well, everyone is going for their thing," he explains. "You have to present yourself the way you are and understand yourself better, so that every time you go out you can do better. [The AEGON Championships] was a great moment for me, especially on grass and especially at Queen’s; it’s one of my favourite tournaments.
"I played a few grass-court players and it took a lot out of me to beat some of them. I was very happy with it. Reaching my first semi-final was a great moment for me. No-one will give you the match. I knew that a long time ago, but when you participate in tournaments for the whole week you see how everyone is."
It proved to be the catalyst for Dimitrov. On the European clay-courts after Wimbledon, where he had been forced to retire ill against Marcos Baghdatis in the second round, he reached back-to-back semi-finals at the SkiStar Swedish Open in Bastad (l. to Ferrer) and the Crédit Agricole Suisse Open Gstaad (l. to Bellucci), propelling his ranking ever closer to the as-yet-impenetrable Top 50.
Looking over his shoulder, World No. 1 Federer has been quick to praise the rise of the latest crop of players on the ATP World Tour, but also to sympathise with their growing pains. "Anything is possible, right?" remarks the Swiss. "They could all be No. 1 in the world at one point or they could never be in the Top 5. We don't know right now. Eventually you feel like you're going to break through, and then it can be frustrating.
"I went through the same thing. The important thing is to just keep on working hard and not get too frustrated by the whole travelling and losing early and just spending time on the practice courts. I'm sure they'll learn and they'll be great players in the future."
"In the younger generation I think everyone is ahead right now," comments Dimitrov. "First of all, I’m very happy for them. Hopefully one day we all can compete for the same thing. From person to person, some go a bit quicker, other people take their time. You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do, give it your best every day and see where you are."
"Grigor doesn't have a limited potential"
If he had previously trailed behind his contemporaries, it is not something that has concerned Mouratoglou, who shares Dimitrov’s view that each player must develop at his own pace.
"I think that if Grigor did not break into the Top 50 these past few years, it just means that he was not ready," says Mouratoglou. "He rose in the rankings quite fast, but obviously, some pieces were missing to keep on moving forward. I believe that he is now developing as a complete player who will be solid and able to keep on rising in the next years.
"Grigor doesn't have a limited potential. He wants to succeed and it is all about work and development in the next three years. If he keeps his motivation and will to make it, I am sure that he will achieve great successes in this sport."