You cannot engineer a better tennis player to be the next forbearer of the ATP than Grigor Dimitrov.
Dimitrov might just be the best shotmaker on tour not named Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. His running, down-the-line forehand is wicked. His backhand is one-handed artistry, as pretty aesthetically as any in the game. He has a diverse style. He’s got slices, drop shots and a net game. His style of tennis is fun, which isn’t to be taken lightly in a world that has monodimensional servers, Kevin Anderson and Sam Querrey, and pure defenders, Pablo Carreno Busta and Dominic Thiem, all in the top fifteen in the world.
He even looks the part. Here’s Novak Djokovic interrupting a press conference to call Dimitrov the best looking guy on tour.
Grigor Dimitrov is built to be on billboards, television promo spots, and Rolex magazine spreads.
What’s more, everyone knows how important it would be to have Dimitrov cash in on all that charm. Take away the hometown boy, Nick Kyrgios, and the two living legends and Dimitrov was The Guy in ESPN’s coverage of the Australian Open. He was the breakout star everyone should keep an eye on, the guy who could push Rafa in the semifinals, the guy who could become the first first-time major winner in nearly four years.
ESPN had good reason to push the narrative.
Pull away the Roger and Rafa duopoly and tennis is left with a motley crew of might-bes, could-have-beens, and never-should-have-beens littering the top of the ATP rankings.
Kyrgios, despite his incredible celebrity, remains more sideshow than main draw. He’ll be 23 come Roland Garros. By that time, Djokovic had his first major and five slam semifinals. Kyrgios has only made two quarters. Gael Monfils made a slam semifinal before he turned 23. If it was going to happen for Nick, you feel like we would have more signs than some 250 titles and a Masters final.
The top twenty players in the world include guys like Tomas Berdych (#20) who is 32, John Isner (#16) who is 32, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (#15), who is 32, Querrey (#13) who is 30, Kevin Anderson (#12) who is 31. None of those guys have ever won a major and they’re all at some point of decline, at least physically (Anderson and Querrey are probably playing their best tennis of their career). They’re not going to be the next ones up to take the reigns from Roger and Rafa, or even Djokovic, Murray, and Wawrinka who are 30, 30, and 32 respectively and all dealing with severe injury problems.
There is the crop of so-called “NextGen” stars who the ATP are desperately trying to get into the public spotlight. Sascha Zverev headlines the group, but his slam performances are already becoming a bit of a concern even if he is yet to turn 21. Hyeon Chung has a ticket to the Australian Open semifinals, Andrey Rublev has an ATP title and a US Open quarterfinal, and Denis Shapovalov has a cult following, but none of those guys are ready to consistently perform in the biggest tournaments. You can forget about entrusting them to shoulder the marketing load for the entire tour.
The ATP top ten has four players who you can say are in the prime of their tennis career.
Jack Sock is ninth in the world. That’s entirely due to a freakish set of circumstances in Paris which allowed him to win a Masters event that saw Nadal and Federer withdraw and featured such luminaries as Julien Benneteau and Filip Krajinovic in the semifinals along with Sock. He won, took 1000 ranking points, jumped up the charts, got to play in the Tour Finals due to more injuries, and bam.
He’s not very good, and he’s almost as unstable as Kyrgios.
David Goffin is seventh in the world. He’s too short to be an elite server, and though he positively crunches the ball from the baseline, he’s yet to make a slam semifinal and lacks any hint of truly elite potential. He’s a helluva worker, and he deserves his top ten ranking. He’s not a star.
Dominic Thiem is fifth in the world. He should never play on hard court because it sucks for him and sucks for me having to watch it. He should just play on clay every week.
Then there’s Dimitrov. At third in the world.
He’s 26. In the past year, he’s won a Masters event in Cincinnati and the Tour Finals in London. He had two break points to potentially go up 5-3 in the 5th set in the Australian Open against Rafael Nadal (he would go on to lose that match). From a bird’s-eye view, Grigor Dimitrov Has It. In 2017, he finally put the results to the aesthetics and established himself as the next guy up.
Except, as you start looking closely, that narrative flakes away.
The ATP Finals in London was a bizarro-world tournament. The tour’s capstone tournament, a round robin style tournament of the top eight players of the year, was more defined by who wasn’t there due to injury (Nadal and Wawrinka withdrew, Murray and Djokovic didn’t qualify thanks to their ailments) than whatever the heck happened on the court. Dimitrov didn’t lose a single match. He also only played Goffin (twice), Carreno Busta, Sock, and Thiem.
Dimitrov played precisely one seeded opponent (Isner) in his Masters win in Cincinnati. Yes, he played Del Potro, but remember, Del Potro had lost to Nishikori and Shapovalov early in the other two US Open warm-up tournaments that summer.
Someone had to still win the tournaments, but you can put asterisks on both.
And, yet, here is Grigor Dimitrov, in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open against an unseeded opponent with a long history of choking big moments.
This has to be Grigor’s time.
His opponent, Englishman, Kyle Edmund, has been receiving treatment on his shoulder all tournament and should surely be worn down after grueling matches against Kevin Anderson and Nikoloz Basilashvili.
Top three players in the world beat Kyle Edmund, who carries a cool 0-6 combined record against Djokovic, Murray, and Nadal. The book on Edmund is simple: he has a massive forehand and a huge serve. He’ll make lots of errors and doesn’t have elite fitness. Keep him pinned on his backhand side, make him work, and eventually, he’ll crack.
Grigor Dimitrov lost serve in the first game.
He never once made Edmund uncomfortable.
The Brit’s generally shaky return game was given a shot in the arm by Dimitrov’s second serve, which was either rolled in gently for Edmund to wallop or neatly deposited in the base of the net. Dimitrov opted for big shots when he could’ve played defensively. Aside from three games in the second set, Kyle Edmund was leagues better than Dimitrov.
In truth, the Bulgarian is lucky the 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 scoreboard didn’t show more carnage.
Allow me to replay one game of the match.
I could choose the deciding game of the first set, where Dimitrov earned three break points and lost them all, or Dimitrov’s awful service game in the fourth that allowed Edmund the deciding break. But there’s a different game that was more illustrative of Dimitrov’s shortcomings.
The official highlight package from the Australian open shows only the deciding point of the game.
Dimitrov leads 4-3 in the fourth set. If Dimitrov can get this to a fifth, he will probably win the match. Edmund is on serve. The Brit blasts an ace up the T.
Suddenly, Kyle Edmund becomes extremely aware of how close he is to a semifinal. You can tell. He hits fast forward. His tempo is all of a sudden drastically out of wack. His first ball toss is too far from his body and is dumped in the net. The next serve meets the same fate. Double fault.
Edmund’s head is spinning now. He retreats for his towel and eventually makes his way back to the baseline. Another first serve clips the tape, this time catching the top of the cord and carrying long.
Every second serve of Edmund’s is a big opportunity for Dimitrov. Throughout the match, Edmund will win just 43% of his 44 second serve points.
This time he rolls in a second serve. Dimitrov immediately puts Edmund on the defensive, making him hit a running forehand that he’d missed throughout the match and then a short-hop backhand. Out of nowhere, Dimitrov loses an inside-out forehand long.
Edmund looks no more settled as he walks with abbreviated strides to the service line before again missing on a first serve. His second serve is deep and heavy, but Dimitrov is game. Edmund’s first groundstroke of the rally is an off-balance forehand that never threatens to clear the net.
Finally, Edmund puts a first serve in the box. Dimitrov gamely blocks the ball back, and then turns a punishing Edmund forehand into a deep, heavy ball of his own. Edmund’s defensive backhand clips the tape on the way by.
Dimitrov is now in control of the point.
He unleashes a forehand down the line. Edmund can only weakly bunt a backhand crosscourt. The court is tilted towards Dimitrov and the whole stadium knows it.
Dimitrov again hits a forehand beyond the baseline. Out.
He challenges the call, pretending he doesn’t know that the shot was well long. The review confirms the call.
Edmund looks a little more relaxed now. His first serve misses by 10 feet.
He is no longer relaxed.
The second serve is short and to the Bulgarian’s forehand. Easy pickings.
Dimitrov’s return goes into the doubles alley and, again, long. Game Edmund.
Through the game, Kyle Edmund never looked like he was going to win it himself. He controlled one point, his ace at 0-0. Dimitrov had three second serve points, a first serve point he won in three shots, and another first serve point that he snatched control of. Three simple forehands produced three inexcusable errors and threw away a break that was gift-wrapped for him.
Great players don’t need to be prodded into seizing control of pivotal moments in the matches. Shoot, Federer doesn’t even try in the first rounds of tournaments until those moments present themselves. But when great players are given chances, they do not miss.
That isn’t to say that great players dominate the Kyle Edmunds of the world day in and day out. Rafael Nadal lost the opening set against Taro Daniel and Leonardo Mayer in the 2017 US Open before beating those two in four sets and winning the championship. But the players who are worthy of top billing consistently win on the smallest of margins that, when you zoom out, appear inconsequential. Tennis is a sport where, literally, one point in every thousand is enough to make a difference in your career.
Grigor Dimitrov did not technically have a break point in that game. But he had five chances to win a point that could have flipped the match around. He needed to win three of them.
He won two.
And in doing so, he made it very clear how far he still has to go.