Athletic physiques that are as suited to catwalk modelling as they are to match-winning forehand volleys are regular fixtures on the courts of SW19. Throw in a row about a love triangle – no, quadrangle – involving two of the game’s biggest female stars, along with mention of a recent public striptease, and even experienced Wimbledon watchers may not be too surprised.
But who would have thought that the rising star of this year’s tournament, soaring up the tennis league of played out off-court in the wake of this tale, is not one of screaming Maria Sharapova’s rivals but her 22-year-old Bulgarian boyfriend, Grigor Dimitrov?
While Sharapova was winning her opening game on Monday – a match overshadowed by tales of sex, betrayal and bitter rivalry – the man at the heart of the public spat between the former champion and her arch rival Serena Williams was warming up for his own appearance on Tuesday.
Stories that Williams was romantically involved with the teenage Dimitrov while they were both based in Paris are readily believable. The current row stems from reports Williams ditched Dimitrov in favour of his coach, Patrick Mouratoglou – who is now divorcing his wife, the mother of his two children.
Dimitrov – who is said to have left Mouratoglou’s academy in disgust – has since confirmed his new relationship with Sharapova, 26, through a passionate embrace after his defeat of Novak Djokovic, the No 1 male player, at last month’s Madrid Open.
This follows a Rolling Stone interview in which Williams took aim at a top-five female player, widely thought to be Sharapova, for being involved with a man who holds a “black heart”. When asked at her pre-tournament press conference about Williams’ comments, Sharapova responded: “Maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids.”
Williams later attempted to deflect the increasing media interest, saying: “I definitely like to keep my personal life personal.” She also claimed that Sharapova had been “inadvertently brought into the situation by assumptions made by the reporter”.
Yet when asked whether Sharapova was the top-five player to whom she had been referring, Williams did not offer a denial.
The Independent attempted to get Dimitrov’s attention during his practice session yesterday to find out what he thought of the row . “Maybe not now, hey?” he said as swaggered towards the court, where he cracked jokes while returning balls as swiftly as he’d rebuffed attempts at conversation.
As if to remind us of the charismatic power that he holds, he later strode back towards the balcony where we were, raising an eyebrow and asking: “So what do you want to know?” After a string of questions, however, Dimitrov replied cryptically: “I don’t think I’ll accept that.” Taking a swig of water, he grinned and thrashed another ball across the net.
At a post-match press conference on Monday, Sharapova said: “I’ve said everything I wanted to say about that issue... I’d really appreciate it if we could move on.”
Dimitrov’s manner seemed all the more relaxed given the attention he has received for both his tennis and his romantic life – but then this is a man who confirmed his reputation as a self-assured pin-up last week by engaging in an on-court striptease with Djokovic at The Boodles tennis tournament in Stoke Park.
“He likes to have a bit of fun at practice,” said a coach who did not want to be named. “He’s so super-confident, he’s the big story, the Next Big Thing and he knows it.” He added: “Everyone’s looking for the next big player to break through. This guy looks good, he’s confident in front of the camera... after his exposure at Queen’s and the way he conducts himself, it’s got to be him.”
And even a coach concerned purely with sporting performance could not deny that stories of his love life will only aid his fast-growing reputation. “Sometimes you get a great player who isn’t very marketable – whereas this guy, well, he’ll get bums on seats.”
Dimitrov, who turned pro in 2008, has bagged $1,173,426 in prize money and become the first Bulgarian to rank inside the top 30. If his tennis continues to match his roller-coaster romantic life, he could soon become Eastern Europe’s hottest star.