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Grigor Dimitrov


Often, absurdly talented tennis players are victims of their own success.

They wow talent scouts, coaches, media and fans with their ball striking, athleticism and success at a young age, and are promptly trumpeted as the game’s next big thing.

And then, as they transition to senior tennis, they struggle, perhaps understandably, to handle the intense expectation and scrutiny.

How they handle this varies wildly.

It took a little while for Roger Federer, a junior world No.1 and Wimbledon and Orange Bowl champion, to hit his straps in the senior ranks, but once he did in 2003, he never looked back. Richard Gasquet, whose talent saw him grace the cover of French Tennis Magazine as a nine-year-old, is perhaps at age 27 only really just getting comfortable with his lofty stature in the game. Donald Young, the youngest ever world No.1 junior and a highly-touted prospect, has yet to thrive.

And then we come to Grigor Dimitrov.

While flattering, being compared favourably with Roger Federer and even being nicknamed ‘Baby Fed’ in recognition of his stylistic similarities to the Swiss is a rather large burden of expectation to carry.

Yet at 22 years of age, it appears he learned to deal with the high interest in his game, and as a result, is flourishing. Evidence of that has been his run to the quarterfinals at Australian Open 2014, by far his best result at a Grand Slam.

“They play in my head sometimes,” the Bulgarian said of those expectations following his third round win over No.11 seed Milos Raonic.

“It's not easy, obviously. Of course everyone would talk and everyone would say, you know, whatever. Not that I care, but the one thing is that I know what I believe in and I know what I'm doing.

“I think the biggest expectation always comes from me. There is no one else that can put the expectation that I can put on me.”

He’s done a sterling job of managing those pressures, beginning in 2013 when he properly transformed from promising whiz-kid to serious competitor among the men’s elite.

He began that season barely inside the top 50 but captured attention with his run to the final at the Brisbane International, and, a couple of months later, caused a boilover at the Madrid Masters with a stunning upset of then world No.1 Novak Djokovic. Later in the season he captured his first ATP title with a win in Stockholm, and finished the season inside the top 25.

After four wins at Melbourne Park, he stands to crack the top 20.

“I'm really happy to be out there in the quarterfinal. (But) I'm not even close to satisfaction," he said.

“I would say I've been working really hard in the past year, especially in the off-season. So it's nice to see that result, you know, coming over.”

Perhaps an even bigger test than managing the expectations that come with his increasing success and exposure will be his last-eight date on Wednesday with top seed Rafael Nadal, who has looked indomitable at this year’s Australian Open.

On paper, it’s not a favourable match-up for the Bulgarian.

For all the lauding of his stylish one-handed backhand, it’s a stroke that Nadal famously feasts on. The world No.1’s biting left-handed topspin forehand plays right into it and wreaks havoc, as his head-to-head record against one-handed players shows. He’s 12-0 against Gasquet, 12-0 against Stan Wawrinka, 5-0 against Tommy Haas, 10-0 against Nicolas Almagro, and 7-0 against Tommy Robredo.

Most notably, he leads the legendary Federer in their head-to-head 22-10, a player whom Dimitrov’s game most closely resembles.

Dimitrov already trails the head-to-head against Nadal 0-3, but encouragingly, has taken the Spaniard to three sets each time.

“We all know that he has won tons of slams. He's been a tremendous competitor. He's Rafa. We all know him,” Dimitrov said.

“(But) that's what I'm playing for, to put myself in position to play those guys. I had tough battles with him in the past. Played a couple times on clay. There were always little things missing.

“But I'm quite happy with the way I'm performing so far. So I like my chances.”

Dimitrov takes on Nadal in his maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal at Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday afternoon.

Sunday, 21 December 2014
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