Talent alone won’t bring you sustained success. Talent alone will only take you so far. Grigor Dimitrov’s story is an embodiment of this philosophy. This young man has through the course of his career, gone from a starlet with an overreliance on his talent, to a champion with an appreciation for the professionalism and career inducing benefits of hard work. Indeed hard work is the hammer that beats on the raw metal that is talent, shaping it into a fine blade capable of achieving the desired result.
Grigor Dimitrov has been chasing this desired result for a while and he has come close to achieving it, a couple of times. In 2014, he reached his first Grand Slam semifinal, defeating defending champion, Andy Murray, in the process. He could have bested Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, but inexperience cost him there. The next time Grigor Dimitrov was in a position to chase his dreams was at the 2015 edition of the Australian Open. He was full of confidence and in supreme form as he and Andy Murray put up a phenomenal display of all court tennis in their quarterfinal clash. Yet, even after a brilliant display, Dimitrov lost that match. At the time, many thought it was a momentary blip in the meteoric rise of the Bulgarian. It turned out to be the beginning of a long journey through tennis’s wilderness. By 2016, Grigor Dimitrov couldn’t string together more than a couple of wins through entire segments of the season. The talent was still there for all to see, but the belief was missing.
And so it was no surprise that at the beginning of 2017, Grigor Dimitrov wasn’t a primary conversational topic. His performances had driven him to the periphery of the tennis elite and sitting at world number 40 on the ATP rankings. That’s when Grigor Dimitrov made his move. We know the story. He went on a tear through Brisbane, capturing that title, before almost pulling off the upset of his career when he stretched Nadal to five sets in their semifinal clash at the Australian Open. While things cooled off considerably in the months that followed, Dimitrov rebounded just before the U.S Open and scored – at the time – the biggest title win of his career, when he won the Cincinnati Masters 1000 title. It is true, he cooled off again until the World Tour Finals.
The World Tour Finals. Dimitrov’s performance at this event is reminiscent of Roger Federer’s performance at the Houston edition of this event all the way back in 2003 when Grigor Dimitrov was twelve. Grigor Dimitrov wasn’t a favorite to win this tournament by any stretch of the imagination. Yet from the word go, there was a purpose about the way he played his matches. Say what you will about Nadal’s withdrawal, but the Bulgarian certainly did his part and won all the matches in his group stage before proceeding to the semifinals. He won against players who had troubled him in the past (Thiem and Sock) and put his foot down against players he had historically fared well against (Goffin).
Speaking of Goffin, he recorded the biggest wins of the tournament and achieved the rare feat of defeating Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the same tournament. It isn’t every day you knock those two out and still lose the tournament. But such is the nature of the World Tour Finals, which pits the eight best players in the world against each other. Goffin reached the final on the strength of a virtuoso performance against Roger Federer. He had found the missing key to his rather solid game. Aggressiveness. He brought that same aggressive play to the final, against Dimitrov. Goffin played fast, attacking tennis, both on serve and on the return. In the first set alone, there were five breaks of serve (three in the first three games). Surprisingly, it was Goffin who was dictating play. His newfound all or nothing style was earning him the breaks, but it was also feeding into Dimitrov’s careful play and gifting them right back to the Bulgarian. Finally, Goffin held and looked set to ride out his service games with a one break difference as he did in the last two sets against Federer.
For once, Goffin was not facing Federer. He was facing Grigor Dimitrov. A younger, super talented and for the moment, equally hungry player whose skills appear to have been gifted to him by the gods. Dimitrov broke back to level the set and then stole another break to go ahead before clinching it. It was the fight back we’ve seen from him all week. Goffin was playing at an incredibly high level and still, Dimitrov could – in Federer’s words – follow him. Rallies were exchanged at a furious pace, and both players were willing to follow their aggressive shots to the net and dare the other to come up with the sublime pass. More times than not, the net rusher came up with the jaw-dropping volley.
The second set was played at the same intensity, but this time it was Goffin who had the ascendancy. If Dimitrov had stolen the first set, Goffin seized the second with both arms. His down the line backhand has been a revelation in this tournament and the Belgian was absolutely pulverizing the ball from that wing, testing Dimitrov’s running forehand – another revelation in the tournament. The third set was a shootout and a display of Grigor Dimitrov’s ever-growing ability to problem solve and find a way to win. Dimitrov took care of his serve, but also put the pressure on Goffin’s. He pushed Goffin back with sizzling groundstrokes, defended stubbornly and found a way to take away the net from a player who wasn’t willing to relinquish his aggressive mindset on the day. Put plainly, Dimitrov pushed further than Goffin could in terms of his quality and his mental grit. The last part is not something we are familiar with when it comes to the Bulgarian. After this tournament, we might have to reevaluate.
The last point was a microcosm of the match. Goffin on the attack and Dimitrov defending stubbornly with a low floating crosscourt slice that just dipped right as it crossed the net cord. It was a gem of a shot that Goffin didn’t have the quality to match. The match and the title were Grigor Dimitrov’s. His sobs as he fell face first on the court showed just how much this journey has meant to him. Titles like this have been his to grab since he burst onto the tennis scene. He’s always had the ability to win on the grandest stage. He just had to believe it. Boy does he believe it now.
This match also showed us a glimpse of tennis without Roger and Rafa or any of the other members of the big four, or big five depending on who you are. It can be just as exciting and riveting, especially if generation NOW steps up to the plate. They did in this tournament and leave us feeling very excited for 2018. David Goffin still has something to play for, however. He leads Belgium as they take on France for the Davis Cup final. You have to wonder how far a win will boost his confidence for 2018. One can only dream of how far Dimitrov can go. As we now know, they both can go really far indeed. The journey continues.