Some of you have already made this prediction, but I thought I'd share my opinion on the matter. I apologize in advance for writing a novel here on MTF.
I last year I found myself spending way too much time watching Dimitrov highlights from 2013-2014 to reminisce about the "good old days" when our boy was on the rise, classic wins against Djokovic, Murray, Anderson, Dolgopolov and Lopez, and of course his heartbreakingly good Wimbledon semifinal loss. But each time I would inevitably remember those first few disappointing defeats that kept him out of the top 10: Monfils, Djokovic, Berdych. Then of course the rollercoaster ride of 2015. Detractors on these forums have sense gleefully declared that “Baby Fed” is all hype, no substance. Fans like me were confused. Who do we hold responsible? we asked. Bad coaching, Sharapova, too much pressure on young shoulders? There were certainly flashes of brilliance during the dark ages of 2015 and 2016, but Dimitrov couldn’t seem to string three wins together. At any given tournament he’d become an expert at making the highlight reel but hardly ever managed to make the quarterfinals. When playing against strong opponents he looked like a talented junior: all flair and passion but no gameplan. He even managed to lose to other hotheads like Paire. His confidence had plummeted and with it his first serve percentage and his topspin backhand. I watched almost all of his matches live during this period. I found myself getting used to his losing ways and doubted whether he could even beat journeymen on a regular basis. And after watching the infamous Istambul final, I even began to question whether or not the haters were right. Was all his prior success just a fluke?
Things started to change for me while watching his first round Rogers Cup match, a match he had no business winning or losing. Facing match point, he chased down a lob so casually you’d think he was fetching a beachball, and flicked it right over Sugita’s head like it was nothing and soon took the TB and the match. Then he won his next two matches, eventually losing to Nishikori in the quarterfinals. Cincinnati was even better. He cruised past Simon, played a gritty match against Lopez, and then produced some ridiculously good shots under pressure against Wawrinka and Johnson. Only in the third set of his semifinals match against Cilic did 2015trov rear his ugly head by getting rebroken twice. Here it goes again, I thought.
Despite losing an important tournament I thought he really could have won, I got the strong sense that a quiet shift had occurred in Grigor's mind. Whatever Vallverdu was doing was working. You could tell that he really wanted to win again, and he was willing to play a much more conservative game to get himself there.
Since then I've had this nagging feeling that 2017 will turn out to be like 2014, but even better. But I was afraid to express this bold opinion, being so accustomed to disappointment whenever it seemed like Dimitrov was turning a corner. As we all witnessed in this last tournament, he exhibited an impressive command of the fundamentals along with the faithful execution of a solid game plan. There was no showboating, nothing worthy of the highlight reel, aside from that ridiculous forehand passing shot from fifteen feet behind the baseline. I for one watched his match against Thiem at the edge of my seat, convinced that he'd crumble in the 3rd, that he'd resort to old, bad habits. But he pulled through convincingly. All the usual haters in the comments section proclaimed, "Thiem was playing horribly"; "It's the first tournament of the season"; "Let's see how he does against a real opponent. And then Dimitrov had the nerve to beat Raonic in straights while outserving
him and returning amazingly in the TB. It's like the roles suddenly reversed. Grigor was the clutch player, refusing to panic when precious minibreaks evaporated before his eyes, not wasting any set points. Again the haters proclaimed that Raonic merely served poorly. It was obvious to me that his return positioning was key to dismantling the Raonic serve. He hovered inches from the baseline, boldly blocking back 200+ kmh serves deep into the court. Then came Nishikori, a terrible matchup for Grigor. But by now I had this eerie feeling that he couldn't lose the tournament. He came out the gate hot, tactically outmaneuvering Nishikori by controlling backhand exchanges with his slice, and abruptly changing up the pace on groundstrokes. His return was more aggressive too. The all too familiar dip came in the second set, but he pulled it together for the win in the third. At the end of the day Grigor was the calmer player. Haters found a way to hate, but more than a few of them started to see that something is very different about his game this season.
Aside from the technical stuff, I think the biggest improvement is his dedication to staying calm and playing smart during big points. Looking back I think that his fall from 2014 form was inevitable because his game was unsustainable
. It was too reactive and unstable. Yes, he’d produce some amazing winners, but more often than not he needed them to get out of a jam that he himself created. Before long players figured out how to push him from side to side to elicit errors. Ultimately, he’d just beat himself. The mental toughness that many of us saw in his early career matches against the Big 3 began to erode the longer he remained in the spotlight. Grigor needed to have his mental game broken down and rebuilt in order to play the tennis he was always meant to play. And most importantly, it looks like he’s having fun again on and off the court. Now that Dimitrov has less pressure on his shoulders (and few points to defend until the fall hardcourt swing) he can start playing the sort of dynamic, aggressive tennis that can challenge the sport’s biggest competitors.
Grigor still has a lot of work ahead of him if he is to ever capture a Slam or even a Masters. The backhand will always need work, and honing his shot selection will be a matter of striking the perfect balance between intelligence and artistry. Making it to the top of the men's game without enormous weapons requires a level of grit and determination that he does not yet possess. But it seems to me that the right pieces have fallen into place. He's gotten a taste of what it means to win and to lose and has chosen the former. We may be witnessing the beginning of a Wawrinka-like renaissance, albeit a couple years early. And though he lacks a Wawrinka backhand, Dimitrov has Djokovic flexibility, Nadal athleticism, and Federer fundamentals. His unique mixture of clutch serving, unpredictable variety of both wings, clean volleying, and dogged backcourt defense will surely spell success for Grigor at the biggest stages.