On the eve of Wimbledon 12 months ago he had a walk-on part in a soap opera-style spat between Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. This year, whatever the behind-the-scenes gossip, Grigor Dimitrov looks certain to take centre-stage.
As Sharapova’s boyfriend of 18 months — and having had a previous relationship with Williams — media attention is unavoidable, especially when the world’s two most celebrated female players start talking about each other’s love lives. This year, however, Dimitrov has also been in the spotlight for sporting reasons.
The 23-year-old Bulgarian, who is the youngest player in the world’s top 20, became the only man to win tournaments on three different surfaces in 2014 when he triumphed at Queen’s Club last weekend. The cameras still strayed to focus on the watching Sharapova, but her man was a big story in his own right.
Champions at Queen’s have regularly gone on to glory at Wimbledon — Andy Murray followed exactly that path last summer — and in winning his first grass-court title Dimitrov set himself up as a contender for the biggest prize at the All England Club over the next fortnight. If it has taken time for the world No 13 to realise the potential that was evident when he won junior Wimbledon six years ago, that is testimony both to the physical nature of the modern game and to the enduring excellence of the current generation of top players at the top.
Now, nevertheless, new names are emerging. Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Ernests Gulbis have all made their mark this year, but it is the man from the southern Bulgarian city of Haskovo who is the pick of the breakthrough bunch.
“The game has changed so much over the years,” Dimitrov said. “Today it’s almost impossible for a guy who is 18, 19 or 20 to win a Slam. But if you can do it just once it’s a very different situation after that. You’re in a different space.”
He added: “I’m very respectful of all the top guys but they are getting older. A lot of things are changing. To me it’s just a cycle of life. Us younger guys are pushing pretty hard. Eventually we’re the future. We all know that, we all feel that.”
Dimitrov broke into the world’s top 100 in 2011 and the top 50 the following year, but it was not until last October, when he beat David Ferrer in the final in Stockholm, that he won his first title. “That was a big thing for me,” he said. “Other people had high expectations of me, but I also had very high expectations of myself.
“Even though I was getting to the quarters and semis in tournaments, going out of them was a big disappointment. I was maybe a bit too hard on myself, but I hope now that I’ve found the right balance. After that last match point in Stockholm it just felt like a burden had been lifted off my shoulders.”
With his good looks, smooth style, quick feet and elegant one-handed backhand, Dimitrov is inevitably compared to Roger Federer. One of his early coaches, Peter Lundgren, who has also worked with the Swiss, even said that Dimitrov was more advanced than Federer at the same age. Before long everyone was calling Dimitrov “Baby Fed”.
“At first I thought it was just funny,” Dimitrov said. “We were all laughing about it. But it actually became boring. Everyone started to say it and it became a big thing. Four years later people are still talking about it. I feel like I want to tell them: Guys, don’t say it!’ I think I’ve proved myself already. I’m not that guy. I’m not who everyone thinks I am. I’ve had enough of it.”
Despite his liking for grass, Dimitrov knows he has yet to show his best at Wimbledon, winning just three matches in four tournament attempts. He has retired hurt on two occasions and last year lost a four-hour marathon in the second round to Grega Zemlja.
“Wimbledon has a lot of memories for me from the juniors, but it’s a place that has almost haunted me,” he said. “I still haven’t been into the second week. It seems there’s always something happening to me out there. So far it hasn’t been my best thing but I’m going to break that.”