This is the one thing I was saying to myself quite a lot lately: Why not me? GRIGOR DIMITROV
Things have remained pretty steady on the men’s side of professional tennis over the past few years: Novak Djokovic is perched at the top of the pack, scooping up most of the titles and Grand Slam trophies; Roger Federer continues to breathe down the neck of the player who once breathed down his for greatest of all time; Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and Rafael Nadal perpetually threaten to (re)dominate. Then there are the new bloods, rising stars like Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, and Nick Kyrgios, who seem positioned to one day (but not yet) break through the ranks and become the next top-five player. Tennis, by and large, is a stable game, where consistency is up there with power and agility for qualities befitting a superstar. In fact, the jagged career of 25-year-old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov often feels like one of the few unpredictable elements today in men’s tennis. Hands down, Dimitrov is one of the most talented, athletic, committed, versatile, and breathtaking players in the game—long-armed and fleet-footed, his gifts are boundless on the court, and he’s one of the most thrilling athletes to watch for his style and strokes alone. In 2014, he had risen to the ranking of No. 8 in the world and was dubbed “Baby Fed” (a nickname that must have been as irritating as flattering to the emerging star). Everyone seemed ready to cede the keys to the Big Four to this handsome, hard-hitting, scampering yet smooth Bulgarian titan. The next great player had unofficially arrived.
Two years later and he still might. Dimitrov is no less a massive talent and a massive threat, even if other young players have been heralded as the next Baby Djokovics. Although Dimitrov had a hot-and-cold 2015 and start to 2016, smashed what might have been a personal record of rackets in the final at Istanbul this year, and dipped down to No. 36 in the ranking right before a loss in a tough first round match at the French Open, it would be impossible to count him out. His ferociously fought third-round loss to Federer at this year’s Australian Open proves he can hang alongside any top player. While the media seems to want to model Dimitrov into the cliché of the tennis playboy—see their obsessive reporting on his relationships, first with Maria Sharapova and now with pop singer Nicole Scherzinger—Dimitrov has other ideas for himself. And with the Olympics and the U.S. Open still on the line, his most effective quality might be his ability to look ahead, shut out the noise, and see the next fight. Within the year, he may just be primed to return to the top 10—and this time, be no one’s Baby in the process. As he plays for Bulgaria in Rio and takes the courts of New York, it just feels like it could still be a Dimitrov year after all.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: Back at the Australian open, you played an excellent match against Roger Federer. You’ve been heralded as one of the next generation of players who will take over tennis. I’m wondering, though, how does even an immensely talented young player break through into the big four/five?
GRIGOR DIMITROV: To be honest, I don’t really want to think that way right now because I still haven’t felt that I’ve reached the level that I want. Obviously, I was eighth in the world two years ago and thought things were going to get even smoother for me from then on. But I stumbled a few times. And I’ve obviously had a few tough tournaments. I’ve always learned a lot in my matches against Roger. I realize what I can improve and what I can be better at in certain situations out on the court. That’s what’s important for me right now. It’s so intense these days. It’s so competitive when you think about it. A lot of this younger generation has been playing great tennis.
BOLLEN: You mentioned Roger as a learning situation. Is that true for all the big players?
DIMITROV: It depends on the player. I’ve played Novak quite a few times. I think I’ve played Andy more than anyone. But for me, every time I play against Roger, I learn the most. Obviously, the outcome is the same because I haven’t beaten him yet, but I really learn a lot. Of course, the other players are unbelievable and they’re always on top of their games.
BOLLEN: Do you continue to watch the matches in a tournament after you are out? Or do you go home and change the channel?
DIMITROV: The matches are good to watch so you can see how the players are in certain situations—how they play, for example, in the moments of a big match. Those are the moments when you rely on yourself. You can’t rely on your coach or anyone else to scout that. I was waking up pretty early the past couple of matches so I could watch.
BOLLEN: But you never think to yourself, “Crap, Novak is just too good.”
DIMITROV: Of course! But at the same time, it’s encouraging because you’re human, you’re playing tennis, so why not you one day? This is the one thing I was saying to myself quite a lot lately: Why not me?
BOLLEN: It seems like tennis is a different sport than it used to be. Not only in power, but also that it’s possible to have a much longer career now. Everyone seems to be peaking in their early thirties as opposed to their early twenties.
DIMITROV: Yeah. Tennis has changed so much over the years. The top 100 guys can beat anyone. And you hear a lot of, “He’s 25 or 26 years old and hasn’t won a Grand Slam.” But it will come. I’m a strong believer in that. It just takes time. You need to accept it and just keep working, especially in the era that we’re playing in right now. A lot of the recent finals have been between Novak and Roger. And Andy has two Grand Slams. It shows the level right now.
BOLLEN: It’s strange how in the women’s game, Serena Williams dominates—even if she loses a final, she dominates. And then players keep bubbling up in the women’s to try to take her on. But the men’s is such a lockdown of two or three players. It’s harder to bubble up.
DIMITROV: Obviously, it’s tough to compare men’s tennis to women’s tennis. You have the dominance of Serena, but you’re right, you can see the cracks where players can come up. But I think it’s a mental challenge more than anything else. When you play Novak or Roger, it’s mental. You can’t move them in any way or another, and that’s when your decision making changes. You know what you have to do. You know how to play. And yet still you have to ask, “Okay, what could I have done better to make less unforced errors?” When you go out there, you can still go a little too much out on the lines or you try to create something that’s not there. Then you lose the simplicity of what tennis is all about.
BOLLEN: A lot of players say to the press, “I’m just going to go out there and enjoy myself.” And I always assume that’s exactly how they don’t feel about a big match, because there’s so much pressure on them. When you’re playing on such a top level, is there still an opportunity for fun and enjoyment?
DIMITROV: I think you have to consider the definition of enjoyment, which is different for everyone. It might not be enjoyment per se; you mean the rush of it. The rush like you get in those deuce points, or those butterflies before you come out on the court. You get ready, you prepare, you do whatever you have to do to get out on the court, and that’s part of the enjoyment. And you miss that adrenaline rush. I think that’s what the enjoyment is. Trust me, it’s no fun where we’re on the fourth set or you’ve got to serve second serve on a break point down. [laughs]
BOLLEN: It’s particularly enjoyable to watch you play because you have a rhythm to your game. Do you feel there is any connection between the way you move and music and dancing?
DIMITROV: I’m a fan of all that. I’m a very creative person in general. I like to create stuff in my downtime off the court. If I were to tell you everything I do, you would be like, “Do you really play tennis?”
BOLLEN: Tell me a few of them.
DIMITROV: I paint or maybe do a couple pictures of friends. I design clothes, for example. This is who I am. It’s very hard when people tell you, “Here, this is what defines you.” I love tennis. But even if I become the greatest of all time, I still don’t only want to be defined by tennis. I’m my own person. And I want to be remembered as I really am. I’m so much more than tennis. Tennis is my dream. It is what I love. And it is what I want to be best at.
BOLLEN: Do you think most players can actually say they love tennis? You turned pro at 16. You, and most of your competitors, made a decision about your future at a very young age. It’s a huge decision for someone who is still basically a boy.
DIMITROV: For me, it was a little bit different because my father was my tennis coach. So when someone asks me, “What would you be if you weren’t a tennis player?” it’s almost impossible to answer because there was just nothing else that I was really interested in. When I was around 12, I realized, “Well, I think I’m kind of good at it, and I want to keep doing it.”
BOLLEN: Did Bulgaria have a structured program for turning pro?
DIMITROV: I left the country when I was 12 to train. I was in California for a bit. I got invited to attend an academy. I was there, and things were going good. I was beating a lot of guys, and then all of a sudden, I was like, “Okay, you know what? I’m just gonna give it a shot.” As I kept playing, I was becoming better and better. But I’m never going to forget those early years, especially during juniors, because I enjoyed that time the most of my career. Those were the best years of my life by far.
DIMITROV: Yeah. Nothing else compares: my first trophy in Stockholm, then winning a 500 event, beating Novak in Madrid, I remember all those moments, like Wimbledon, those were huge moments. But I remember when I was number one as a junior, I said to myself, “Well, you’re going to turn pro.” But I felt like I was already living my dream.
BOLLEN: And you never felt like your life was restricted by that choice?
DIMITROV: No, I never felt restricted. Of course, there were a lot of sacrifices, but it was never a problem for me because I knew what I wanted. And my parents never made one decision for me. They always asked me, “Do you want to do this or not?” So every decision that I’ve made so far in my life, it’s been on me. I don’t have regrets for that; I have regrets for other things. But when it comes to tennis, it’s been a tremendous experience so far.
BOLLEN: We live in an age of social media, and the younger generation of players has also shifted away from the quiet, private lives that the older players seem to prefer. You’ve dated some famous women, for example, so you’ve seen yourself on tabloids. Then at the other end of the spectrum, there is a guy like Nick Kyrgios, who erupts into these tantrums that get a lot of attention.
DIMITROV: I think it depends a little bit on how you’re brought up. I mean, no offense to anyone, I respect him as a player and all. And nowadays social media is all around. I always say, “In order to be irreplaceable, you must be different.” But I’ve tried to be as private as I can be. We’re in the public all the time. Even when we’re warming up in the stretching area, we have cameras there. I mean, this is crazy.
BOLLEN: There was that clip of you and Federer watching the Sharapova match in the players room at the Australian Open and neither of you realized you were being filmed.
DIMITROV: Yes! We had no clue. You’re in the public eye all the time, and that’s also where all the pressure comes in, and everyone reacts in a different way. I’m sure some are more provoked by this stuff. In the era we’re in, it’s just how it is. I have accepted it because I know where I come from and I know what I’m used to. I like to say I have a little bit of an older soul. So, in my head, I’m very clear with a lot of things. And there are things, whether you like it or not, you just have to do.
BOLLEN: Andy, Novak, and Roger all have children now. They’re very settled into their families. That seems to be one path for staying sane in the sport.
DIMITROV: I just want to live my life the best way I can and enjoy the moment that I have off the court because you need to find a good balance. I think this is very important. Novak and Andy became fathers pretty early if you think about it. But in a way, that helps; it keeps a great balance. Everyone has a different opinion on this, but I don’t know. If I decide to become a father in one or two years, I’m not going to be discouraged. I’m just thinking aloud. But it is good to be a little settled down considering we travel so much throughout the year.
BOLLEN: How do you handle the travel? Is there anything you do to make all these hotels your own place?
DIMITROV: I’m starting to find my little spot in each city and a room to stay that feels a little more homey. Maybe my vanity is coming out more because, when I go to a hotel, I’m like, “Listen, guys, can you please just make sure I have this kind of blanket and that kind of pillow? And maybe a few candles?” But it’s fine. I’m like, “Grigor, settle down, man.”
BOLLEN: Soon you’ll ask to be carried into the hotel.
DIMITROV: Yes! [laughs] I’m living in hotels. I’m almost 25 right now, and I have my place in Europe and all that, but I’ve never really settled in one place. I think with each year, I’m starting to feel it more and more, you know, to come back home and be like, [sighs] “Okay, this is home. You can drop your stuff.” Mentally, it helps you to recharge and get better. But the problem is once you stop enjoying travel, then this is going to become a very big problem for you to perform as well.
BOLLEN: I know not long ago you designed a racquet for Wilson. And you also mentioned designing clothes. You’ve worked on some apparel with Nike.
DIMITROV: Yeah! I have a lot of input on the Nike shoes and a couple of other projects. It’s been a great process. I’m always very excited when I do things like that, because it’s something I can really relate to.
BOLLEN: What are your goals for the season ahead?
DIMITROV: I have quite a few tournaments to play. Obviously, my focus is to do the best I can in all of them. One of my goals is to get back to the top 10; it’s a long way. I think I need more than a thousand points to get back into it. It’s just going to take time. Again, it’s a process. I just have to go through those hard rounds, the first hard rounds, and I’m sure I’m going to play early against players that are tough to beat. Any other big goal for the moment is no use. I don’t need to put extra pressure on myself right now. The important thing is for me to stay healthy, in practice, and just keep on the hours. You just never know when it’s going to happen for you.
BOLLEN: Are you looking forward to the Olympics? Or does it always seem hard because it disrupts the summer schedule with one more huge tournament?
DIMITROV: I’m very easy on that because I love the Olympics. I love the idea of something happening every four years. I’ve always had love for Bulgaria, and I’ve always been a Bulgarian. That’s also really part of why I want to play it. I know it’s tough for the calendar, but at the same time, it’s the Olympics.