In every sport, once a Great One has been established, the pressure immediately builds for a Next One; never satisfied with the lasting presence of one giant at the top of the game, fans and media inevitably begin to search for someone who will dethrone the reigning greatest of the sport. Sometimes the annointed successor can live up to those colossal expectations- see LeBron James coming in the wake of Michael Jordan- but in other instances, these expectations can unfairly define the career of an extremely talented athlete, dooming them to forever be seen as a disappointment.
Grigor Dimitrov was one such case for the world of tennis. He first began to garner attention as he rose through the ranks of the ITF juniors. He achieved a decisive breakthrough in the summer of 2008, where at seventeen years old he won the boys’ singles titles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Dimitrov was easily the most promising young tennis player to ever emerge from his native country of Bulgaria, but the tennis world soon placed infinitely higher expectations on his shoulders.
His smooth, offensive baseline game, headlined by a silky one handed backhand, inevitably drew comparisons to Roger Federer, who had just spent the previous four years as the reigning world no.1, and had established himself as one of the greatest to ever play the sport. The tennis world bestowed Dimitrov with the nickname of “Baby Fed,” and with that, the expectation was set- anything less than a world no.1 ranking at the men’s tour level, with multiple Grand Slam titles, would be a failure for the young Bulgarian.
The tennis world has a short memory- even by the time Dimitrov reached the tour, it had seemingly been forgotten that he was not the first promising young player to be given the “Baby Fed” moniker. Richard Gasquet was subjected to massive hype at an even younger age than Dimitrov was, gracing the cover of tennis magazines in his native France at the age of nine. The hype seemed to be confirmed when, at 18 years old, Gasquet defeated Federer in a three set match at the Masters Series tournament in Monte Carlo- the next great of the game had arrived. But it was not to be the case.
Gasquet, like Dimitrov later would, earned comparisons to Federer because of his one handed backhand, a beautifully classical example of the stroke capable of producing magnificent winners seemingly at will. However, Gasquet lacked many of the elements that made Federer the world’s greatest, particularly the ability to consistently dictate points with his forehand, or a powerful serve. Gasquet has had, by most measures, an extremely successful career as a tennis pro, winning 15 ATP titles and achieving a career high ranking of world number 7. But he never seriously contended for a Grand Slam, falling at the semifinal stage three times in his career.
Dimitrov’s backhand lacks the artistry of Gasquet’s at its finest, but his serve, forehand, and overall game seemed to have more legitimate potential to lead him to a career worthy of the “Baby Fed” moniker. However, he too has failed to live up to those expectations, nearly an insurmountable task to begin with.
This is not to say that Dimitrov’s career has been poor, far from it. He has achieved a career high ranking of world no. 3, easily the highest ever for a Bulgarian man. He has reached three Grand Slam semi finals- once each at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. He has won over $19 million in prize money, with his biggest title coming at the ATP Tour Finals in London in 2017.
Part of the reason Dimitrov has not established himself as a Slam champion has been issues with injury. But Dimitrov has also suffered greatly from inconsistency, often failing to string together good results at consecutive tournaments, and thereby failing to sustain a permanent place in the top 10 or top 5 rankings. Coaching turnover has been a major fixture in his career- he has made his way through eleven coaches throughout his career. The 2021 Australian Open sees Dimitrov working with the latest of these, Dante Bottini, after the COVID-19 truncated 2020 season that saw him end the year barely inside the ATP’s top 20 in the rankings.
In the fourth round of the Australian Open, Dimitrov found himself faced against a younger peer who had thoroughly surpassed him in the hierarchy of tennis. Dominic Thiem never drew any comparisons to Roger Federer despite also sporting a one handed backhand. Yet Thiem has accomplished what Dimitrov has heretofore failed to do- win a Grand Slam, taking home the 2020 U.S. Open. He entered the match decidedly favored against the Bulgarian.
However, Dimitrov would come out the stronger on that day, winning in straight sets and providing a reminder to the tennis world of the potential he still has on any given day. Dimitrov seemed assured of a spot in his fourth Grand Slam quarterfinal, facing unknown Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev. But inconsistency would rear its ugly head once again, with Dimitrov taking the first set only to drop three consecutive sets and bow out of the tournament to an opponent most would argue he should have easily beaten. After the match, Dimitrov revealed that he was suffering from severe injury problems during the match, with his back affecting him to the point where he could not even put on socks.
Grigor Dimitrov is still capable, at this stage of his career, of turning in high quality performances against the best players in the world. He arguably still has the potential to accomplish what Stan Wawrinka did, breaking through as a Grand Slam champion after spending most of his twenties as a talented but frustrating underachiever. The 2021 Australian Open presented a golden opportunity for Dimitrov to do so, making his lose to Karatsev all the more devastating.
Grigor Dimitrov has had a career that almost every tennis player to ever pick up a racquet would give their right arms to have had, but- partly due to the elevated expectations placed on him, partly due to his own limitations as a player- he is well on his way to going down as a disappointing case of what might have been.