Once destined for big things, Dimitrov has descended into obscurity.
The finals of the Istanbul Open ended on May 1, but the antics that led to the tournament’s outlandish conclusion have likely not yet escaped the minds of viewers. Grigor Dimitrov, the current world No. 28 who was once ranked as high as eighth, spectacularly self-destructed in the final sets against Argentinian Diego Schwartzman. Although Dimitrov played it off as a bad day, his striking collapse in the face of certain victory can be symbolic for the downward spiral that has become his tennis career.
Dimitrov seemed to have Schwartzman all but dispatched after winning the first set 7-6, and leading 5-2 in the second. The 24-year-old seemed to be well on his way to regaining some much-needed confidence after a sharp decline saw the former top-ten player plummet from potential stardom into obscurity in less than two years. He fell back into that pattern, however, when attempting to close out the match for his first title since 2014. Schwartzman rallied to force a tiebreak, which he then won. He capitalized on his opponent’s missteps and proceeded to steamroll Dimitrov in the third set.
Schwartzman took a commanding 5-0 lead in the decisive set, which enraged the free-falling Bulgarian, who responded to his inopportune reversal of fortunes by smashing three rackets. He was warned, penalized at deuce, and then handed the loss via another point penalty. The incredulous display beckons the question, how did Dimitrov get to this point?
The Bulgarian’s tirade symbolizes just how far he has fallen from a view at the top. Despite still being in his prime years, it seems likely that he has already reached his pinnacle. Though the reasons for the disappointing turn in his career are not completely clear, this downturn may be explained by problems with maturity, conflicts with his coach, and an overall lack of discipline that players need to become the true greats.
Despite Dimitrov’s apology to Schwartzman and to his fans, the damage had been done. The first real headlines Dimitrov made since his apex in 2014 were for childish antics, something unfitting for a player that possesses his prowess. Losing your temper in tennis, a sport synonymous with class and grace, is generally taboo and tends to bring with it the unwanted connotation of a spoiled brat. What is perhaps most puzzling is that Dimitrov does not have a reputation for having a short fuse. It could then be fair to assume that his meltdown could be explained by his currently mundane status in the world of tennis, which should be a big concern for him. He must improve fast if he has any hope of fulfilling his past promise.
Understanding Dimitrov’s frustrations would require one to go back to his rise, when prosperity appeared to be on the horizon. He became the first ranked Bulgarian male tennis player to be seeded at a Grand Slam, when he entered the 2013 French open as No. 26 in the world. He would consistently mow through lesser competition, exhibiting the consistency that exists in all should-be greats. He lost to top players like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, but showed he belonged and suggested that he would be a threat to the big four in the near future.
In 2014, Dimitrov finally got over the wall in his career. He won three titles on three different surfaces, including a monumental win against Murray in which he prevailed in two tiebreaker sets en route to claiming the Acapulco title. He followed up his success with a tremendous showing where it mattered most, on the big stage of Wimbledon. He enjoyed an easy draw through the quarterfinals, but was tested with familiar foe Murray, who he once again bested, this time demolishing him in straight sets. Oh, and did I mention it was at Wimbledon, the place where defending champion Murray was deemed savior for an entire nation? Wins like that are not usually flukes. Dimitrov then fell to Djokovic in four sets, but the tournament should have been a clear message that Dimitrov could now play with the big boys.
What followed was not how it was supposed to be written, nor was it the way that it has played out for the true stars. Dimitrov entered 2015 as No. 11, but by the time the clay court season rolled around, he began a decline just as meteoric as his rise. He faced Roger Federer in Brisbane, but was not competitive in the least, being run off the court in less than an hour. The Australian Open saw him lose to Murray in four sets. Despite the loss coming in a respectable Round of 16 match, it was a definite warning sign after his previous showings against the Scot.
Dimitrov’s struggles were not limited to defeats against the Big Four, as he failed to defend his Acapulco crown, and was upset in the second round by current No. 149 Ryan Harrison. He continued to show vulnerability in the French Open, when he lost in straight sets versus American Jack Sock in the opening round. His decline carried over into his best arena, the grass court, where he lost to Giles Muller in Queens in the second round, another title he had claimed the year before. He completed his descent at the sight of his greatest accomplishment, Wimbledon. He was ousted in the third round after Frenchman Richard Gasquet rolled in straight sets.
It was at this point that Dimitrov parted ways with his coach Roger Rasheed, a man that is responsible for several breakout seasons, and has since been replaced him with Franco Davin, formerly the coach of Juan Martin Del Potro. It is not clear why the two broke up, but Dimitrov has not improved his ranking so far in 2016. He bested Murray once again, this time in the Miami Open, but also suffered a couple losses to Federer, including a four-set defeat in the Aussie Open that indicated he is still not consistent enough against elite competition.
Most disconcerting had to be his loss against current No. 43 Alexander Zverev Jr. back in March at Indian Wells. Dimitrov was supposed to be a star for the next generation, but now is being overshadowed by the latest crop of hopefuls, which would suggest his window is closing. He might end up wishing he exercised a bit more patience and stuck it out with Rasheed. It remains to be seen if Davin will be able to rejuvenate Dimitrov’s career, which is still stuck in reverse, as he most recently fell to No. 46 Pablo Carreno Busta in straight sets at the Madrid Open just days ago.
The revelation of the Bulgarian’s temper, coupled with the coaching change, would suggest that his attitude is the reason the name Dimitrov is no longer commonplace in discussions of players-to-watch. That is mere speculation, of course, but Wimbledon semifinalists tend to exercise a little more composure. He showed in Istanbul that when things go awry he cannot maintain his composure, and that is the reason he has been forced to go back to the drawing board, instead of moving toward the top five.
Although Dimitrov has the ability to be elite, people said the same thing of Gael Monfils. Monfils was also coached by Rasheed when he reached his peak of No. 7 in the world in 2011. Rasheed parted ways with the Frenchman the same year and Monfils never materialized into a major star or even a one-hit wonder, for that matter. Sensing a pattern here? Rasheed gets results from players that lack discipline and maturity. Dimitrov could now suffer the same anticlimactic fate as Monfils.
What is most troubling is that there is really no quantifiable reason why Dimitrov has trailed off. Statistically speaking, he is doing, for the most part, the same things he was doing a couple years ago. It may then be fair to assume that his downfall is a result of the mental aspects of his game. It may seem preposterous to even be examining Dimitrov’s career, but that is why it is so noteworthy. He is an anomaly. Players who perform at a high-caliber level against stiff competition usually become fixtures of the sport.
He should, at the very least be in contention, which leads to the main point that Dimitrov is quite possibly the sport’s biggest disappointment in years. It is absurdly harsh, sure, but given the distinct path that tennis players take, it is more than fair. It is a sport in which even a year of excellent play against top players is usually not a fluke. If the player looks like a star in Wimbledon, more often than not they become at the very least someone who devout fans know and anticipate during the Grand Slam season.
Dimitrov has so far this year been an afterthought, despite a serviceable 18-9 record, as he has been overshadowed by a group of new and exciting fresh faces like Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric, and Taylor Fritz. It is very possible in this changing era (which could become the most cluttered and competitive in recent memory) that Dimitrov’s best days are already behind him. It would be a real shame, considering how bright his star shined just a short while ago.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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