Grigor Dimitrov, a little known Bulgarian tennis player, knocked world number 1 Novak Djokovic out of the Madrid masters in the second round on 8 May. Some people were very surprised. Those who have been watching Dimitrov for some time probably just breathed a sigh of relief.
Dimitrov has been steadily rising in the ATP rankings for several years, and was expected to break out long ago—probably around the same time as his junior tour compatriot Dolgopolov, who made the Australian Open Quarter Final in 2011. This expectation relates to Dimitrov’s conquest of the US Open and Wimbeldon junior titles in 2008.
Of greater significance for expectations is that Dimitrov’s game and techniques look disturbingly similar to that of Federer’s when the Greatest of All Time was Dimitrov’s age. Both players hug the baseline, both have unusually flat trajectories on their strokes for modern players, both use the increasingly rare single handed backhand and both like to get to the net. In addition, Dimitrov shows the same flamboyance, speed and disregard for risk that Federer displayed in his youth.
Dimitrov’s game, like Federer’s, is better suited to the grass and harcourts of the US Open and Wimbeldon. On these surfaces the risk-reward ratio turns in favour of aggressive play. On clay and plexicushion (the Australian Open surface) high bounce and the cushioning effect of the surface make aggressive play statistically disadvantageous.
It might seem odd then that Dimitrov beat Djokovic in Madrid—isn’t that a claycourt? Yes, but Madrid is played at altitude, and the thin air means Madrid is notorious for playing like a high bouncing hardcourt in terms of pace. This is why Federer was able to defeat Nadal there, no doubt costing some punters a lot of dough when they extrapolated the result to the much slower Roland Garros courts.
As such, don’t expect much from Dimitrov for the remainder of the clay court season, but come Wimbledon, even if saddled with another bad draw, he should go deep. He retired hurt in 2012, and in 2011 was only defeated in an electrifying five setter by eventual semi-finalist Tsonga, who beat an on-form Federer in the quarters.
Dimitrov is a player to watch in the coming years. As he matures he will hopefully follow Federer into a calm, composed game characterised by surgical aggression, and will be extremely competitive. As a bonus, his brand of tennis is exhilarating to watch, and a nice change from the deep in the court rallies increasingly characteristic of modern tennis.
Mark Fabian is the head coach of the ANU tennis club.
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