By Sport Magazine @Sportmaguk
May 21st| 2015
Painful. That’s how Grigor Dimitrov described his first- round exit at Roland Garros last year.
The straight-sets defeat to giant-serving Ivo Karlovic played on his mind for weeks, fuelling his motivation going into the grass-court season.
It turned out to be a useful tactic, with the Bulgarian number one securing his first title on grass at Queen’s before reaching his first Grand Slam semi final at Wimbledon. It is not, however, a tactic he wishes to repeat at this year’s tournament, which begins on Sunday.
“I expect a lot from myself,” he says when we meet in the handsome surrounds of the Monte Carlo Country Club. “In a way it’s a burden, but at the same time I feel like I want to perform at my best every week. I didn’t do well at the French Open last year, so it is one of the tournaments I really want to focus on this season.”
Having high expectations comes with the territory when you have been living with the nickname ‘Baby Fed’ since you were 18 and your girlfriend is a former world number one with five Grand Slam titles to her name. But the 24-year-old’s determination to succeed dates back further than both of these inflictions (because dating Maria Sharapova must be such a hardship).
It was his ambitious attitude that prompted Dimitrov to leave home for a tennis academy in Barcelona at the age of 15, and that later in his career led him to employ Roger Rasheed – a man renowned for pushing players to their physical limits – as his coach.
“I’m never afraid of work,” says Dimitrov with a wry smile, for he knows that if he is to reach the standards predicted of him for so many years, the work has only just begun. And he might find himself similarly motivated for Roland Garros as he did for Wimbledon last year: he crashed out of the Italian Open to Fabio Fognini in the second round last week – with a third-set bagel.
Men’s tennis has been dominated by a select few since you joined the tour. Does that make it hard to stay motivated?
“It’s motivating. I’ve got respect for all those players. At the moment, they’re just better. I hate to think that, but their experience sets them apart. The one thing everyone forgets is that yes, we work a lot and we’re younger – but at the time we are working, they work too. So they never sit on the same level. Everyone thinks that they’ve matched their potential, but no. Developing is part of life. We have to remember that.”
The French Open was the only Slam where you failed to improve last year. Is clay your least favourite surface?
“Well, I grew up on clay so I don’t dislike it. But it always takes a bit of time to adjust. That’s the same for everyone. If you’re lucky enough to get a good draw early on in the clay season, then you can get a few matches under your belt and build a bit of confidence. If not, then it’s a bit of a struggle to find your form.”
You must have watched a lot of tennis growing up, with your dad as your first coach. What’s the first match you remember?
“I remember the 1999 Wimbledon final: Pete Sampras versus Andre Agassi. It’s one of my vivid memories – sitting in front of the TV with my dad watching Sampras diving all over the court. My dad didn’t have the opportunity to turn professional, so I guess he transferred all his knowledge and effort into me.”
Did you look up to any one player in particular?
“Not really. I know I resemble some players here and there, but I’ve never tried to base my game on anyone. I always thought I had a different style, a different way of playing and thinking. Early on I was more interested in learning the game than following what this guy does or that guy does. I just did what came naturally to me after that.”
You were just 15 when you left home for the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona [where Andy Murray also developed his game]. How tough was that experience?
“At the time I didn’t think it was that big a decision, but now I look back and I’m like: ‘Wow. I didn’t know anyone there or speak the language.’ But when you’re in an academy it is easier to fit in because there’s a lot of other kids around and lots of activities going on. Soon enough, though, everyone gets on your case because they know you’re playing well. They start to look at you a little differently. One of the things I’m happy with is that I always kept my composure as a person off the court; I never had my head too high or too low. It was a very good learning process.”
Does that experience toughen you up mentally for life as a senior professional on the tour?
“Not at all. It actually spoils you a little bit because at the academy you know that every day you have to go to this court for practice, then you have to see this fitness coach for that, then you go back to your dorm. Everything is scheduled and organised for you. You don’t have to do anything. On the tour, you’re on your own. You have to get your rackets sorted, book a practice court, find a hitting partner – that puts enormous pressure on you. But, in a way, I liked it. It was good to hang out with other people.”
You have worked with Roger Rasheed for almost two years. Was his focus on fitness a key reason for you teaming up?
“I knew that he was big on fitness but I didn’t know the quantity of it [laughs]. It turned out pretty good, though. I’ve grown my game and I have grown physically, which was important. One of the things I told him before we started working together was that I’m never afraid of work. He was actually laughing at that statement at the time, but I backed it up. It’s pretty simple stuff that has made a difference, and now I’ve reached a level in my fitness where I’m really solid and I know how far I can push myself. In a way there’s no secrets for me.”
What has been your best match of your career so far?
“I would definitely rate my match against Andy Murray last year at Wimbledon [in the quarter finals]. One of the first times you come out on court like that against a player like Andy – he’s the defending champion and it’s his home, so it’s one of those moments you just remember. To be able to go out there and play a match like that was one of my greatest efforts so far.”
Was it a case of rising to the occasion?
“I was just so locked in. I wasn’t bothered by anything around me. Sometimes you have days like that and, when you have them, you have to seize the moment. The scariest part was that I knew it even before the match. I wasn’t nervous or anything. I just went out there knowing that I was going to play well. Some things are just inevitable if you think that way.”
What about the flipside – a match you never want to watch again?
“Against Roger Federer, this year in Brisbane [which Dimitrov lost 6-2, 6-2]. I just played really badly. But I do watch these matches again.
I think you need to. It’s healthy to watch them and learn what you can do or change for the next time.”
What did you take from that particular defeat?
[Laughs] “Never play like that again.”