Grigor Dimitrov knew something had to change.
He left the US Open with a first-round defeat at the hands of world No.95 Joao Sousa, and a 3-4 win-loss record at the 2013 Grand Slams. From New York he headed to China, losing his openers in Beijing and Shanghai in straight sets. The wiry 18-year-old who had burst onto the scene in 2009 with a win over Tomas Berdych and a rousing display at Queen’s was now 22, barely inside the top 30 and still waiting for his first title. The script needed a rewrite.
He picked up the phone and called Roger Rasheed.
For two days they talked in Los Angeles. Rasheed had followed Dimitrov’s career from the moment word spread of a youngster with a swashbuckling style, beautiful backhand and tennis brain that drew comparisons with, yes, one Roger Federer. Dimitrov was aware of Rasheed’s disciplinarian philosophy from his spells with Lleyton Hewitt, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils. The Australian has no truck with timewasters; the Bulgarian was done wasting time. They agreed to a short-term arrangement starting in October, and during the honeymoon Dimitrov won the If Stockholm Open.
“Getting in that partnership with Roger Rasheed really helped me out through that tough time, especially in the end of last year,” Dimitrov said. “Coming through the tournament in Stockholm, obviously that was a good stepping stone for me, my first title. That created a big window for us where we had a lot to do in the off-season, put in extra work and see our goals in the future.”
Fast forward nine months and Grigor Dimitrov is finally where he wants – and so many others have long expected him – to be. Three more titles, on clay, hard and grass courts, have followed since his Stockholm breakthrough, most recently back at Queen’s. Having won 37 matches on the ATP World Tour through the whole of last season, he claimed his 35th win of 2014 on Wednesday, defeating the reigning Wimbledon champion, Andy Murray, in straight sets on Centre Court. On Friday he faces Novak Djokovic, also unbeaten on grass this summer, for a place in his first Grand Slam final.
“It just clicked, it just happens,” Dimitrov said of his synergy with Rasheed. “You can't really describe things like that sometimes. Yeah, we have our goals that are really higher than that. We're just at the beginning.
“On the court I'm just playing better tennis. I have better shot selections; I'm more consistent throughout all the weeks, winning more matches. You’ve got to find a good formula for that – once you’ve got it, you’ve got to apply it as soon as the tournament starts and find your own path for that.”
Rasheed relishes his reputation for working his players to near-breaking point – “I can make you vomit in a minute,” he proudly told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year – but while Dimitrov is the first to admit he has never worked harder, to confine Rasheed’s influence to the fitness of his charges does the former tennis pro and Aussie Rules player a disservice.
“What can I say? Discipline. Better shot selection. You know, there's a bunch of things,” Dimitrov explained. “We never focus on one thing in particular. We always try to work on things. I think the most important thing is to really give 100 percent from each other every day because I think this is what we both deserve and what we owe to the game.”
Before the tournament, much was made of Dimitrov’s projected route to the title – Murray in the quarter-finals, Djokovic in the semis and either Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer in the final. No player beyond that quartet has won the Gentlemen’s Singles title since Hewitt, prior to his time with Rasheed in 2002. But having dealt with one former champion in emphatic fashion, Dimitrov sees no reason to stop there.
“We all know how Novak is competing and how he's playing when he's at his top level,” Dimitrov said. “I'm of course not expecting an easy match. But I'm out there to go through a match, to win it. He has the experience and all that behind him, but in the same time, I've been playing great tennis. I believe in my skills at the moment.”
As well he might. Dimitrov has long been a one-man highlights reel on court but, now that ability to produce the impossible with a flick of his racket has been allied with a ruthless resolve, he might finally realise the potential he displayed as the Junior champion back in 2008.
“I always thought the transition from juniors to seniors is one of the toughest things to do,” he admits. “Some people do it kind of fast. There's people that just take a longer way.”
They are often richer for the journey.
20:08It brings me no pleasure but it's time to bring the curtain down for another year. Seemed somehow appropriate to leave the last word to Roger Federer. Thanks a billion for reading. What a fortnight, what a final, fast forward to 2015 please...
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