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Grigor Dimitrov: Leaving No Stone Unturned

A rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov is having the best season of his career. James Buddell profiles the first Bulgarian to qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals.

As Grigor Dimitrov steps off a Thames Clipper this week, the view will be all too familiar: the glass fibre fabric canopy of The O2 will loom large, as will the sight of 36-foot high imagery of his rivals that provide a welcome to those visiting the Nitto ATP Finals. Three years ago, as an alternate, Dimitrov learned to play a gruelling waiting game: preparing, practising, anxiously awaiting an opportunity, all in anticipation of a call – which never came – to step up following the withdrawal of a competitor.

“That was rough, but it did make me stronger and I took the positives out of it,” remembers Dimitrov, who can now afford a smile. “The [Nitto ATP] Finals is a very special place for anybody. I’ve definitely always wanted to go there and be a part of that elite group. What a better reward for the year.”

Last Thursday evening, Dimitrov savoured the Nitto ATP Finals Official Launch presented by Moët & Chandon at the Tower of London, where he posed with his contemporaries in suits for the official photograph. It would have tapped into his love for history, the arts, culture and architecture. But as the charismatic Bulgarian makes his debut at the season finale, he will remind himself that being among the Top 8 in the Emirates ATP Rankings is a prize for not only his dedication and consistency, but also for simply knowing what works best for him as an athlete.

Dimitrov was 23 when he first broke into the Top 10 in July 2014, heralding the arrival of a new generation of talent that included Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic. While Dimitrov won three titles that season – including at the Aegon Championships at The Queen’s Club – as well as more than 50 matches, 2014 was also a year in which he dealt with a number of challenges, an experience he learned from. The focus of attention shifted from his fluent single-handed backhand and a game that is glorious to watch when he is on the attack, to unfair comparisons to Roger Federer’s tennis, and also to his life off the court. “There were times when things were definitely not going well for me, but I still had to play and compete,” says Dimitrov.

Today, it is the taste of life in the Top 10 three years ago that has become the foundation stone of his rejuvenation over the past 16 months. Dimitrov, the son of a tennis coach, has never been guilty of not grafting ever since he took the decision to leave Bulgaria as a 12-year-old to grow his talent in California, Barcelona and France. “The competition is what we want,” says Dimitrov. “Sometimes as players you stay home for three weeks and you’re dying to head out and compete. But you have to stay home and practise and put in that work.

“That work is sometimes way more important than anything else, because if you’re feeling fresh and happy and determined, when the tournaments come around you feel happier and you get into that match mode, rhythm, and everything begins to click. When you win, you want to win more. When you lose, it feels like the end of the world. So you have to find the right balance.”

Ever since Dani Vallverdu, the former coach to two of the sport’s hardest workers in Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych, came on board in August 2016, alongside fitness trainer Sebastien Duran and physiotherapist Azdine Bousnana, there has been new perspective. Dimitrov was ranked World No. 40 at the time. Now, he is assured of his first year-end Top 10 finish.

“Initially, I sat down with Dani and the rest of the team to map out a plan,” recalls Dimitrov. “’This is what we’re going to do now’… ‘This is how we’re going to do it’ and ‘Let’s go from there.’ It was basically about simplifying everything as much as possible, from my fitness, to the on-court work to the off-court work.

“Setting regular targets – short-, medium- and long-term – has helped to develop my confidence and consistency. There comes a time when you realise that you can play good tennis, you deserve to be toe-to-toe with and beat the top guys. Learning to be patient has also made a big difference.”

To observe Dimitrov’s off-season training block at the Monte-Carlo Country Club in November and December 2016 was to witness a player calmly going about each exhausting task, totally focused on the now, while preparing for the future. The close-knit nature of the team ensures Dimitrov really trusts and respect those around him, but they also aren’t afraid to tell him if he’s taking his foot off the gas. Arriving at the Country Club early each morning, Dimitrov switched off his brain and simply pushed harder in the gym: through stretching, cardio, weights and resistance training, then on the court in interval training, balance work and technical adjustments to improve his fluency. Each session was fuel for the tank, an indicator to his rivals that he was ready to compile a career-best season in 2017.

“There’s no hiding from the Australian sun, and when the new season begins you see who has been working and who hasn’t when you come out of the garage,” says Dimitrov, who got off to a 16-1 start this year. He beat three Top 10 players — Dominic Thiem, Raonic and Nishikori — in the final three rounds of the Brisbane International presented by Suncorp, advanced to the Australian Open semi-finals and clinched the Garanta Koza Sofia Open crown on home soil in February.

Those results got him moving in the right direction, from a 2016 year-end No. 17 in the Emirates ATP Rankings and back into the Top 10 by July. After the biggest title of his career in August, when Dimitrov claimed his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crown at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, and recently finishing runner-up at the Intrum Stockholm Open, the 26-year-old is now closing in on the second season of his career with 50 or more match wins.

What next? Walking out of his individual, personalised locker-room at the Nitto ATP Finals and towards the court, Dimitrov’s mind won’t be fast-forwarding to next year, as “thinking about 2018 seems scary”, but will be completely fixated on the present, on what happens here in London: “I’m focusing on the now.”

The 2017 Nitto ATP Finals will be held at The O2 in London from 12-19 November