By Giri Nathan
It should be impossible to have a game as gorgeous as Grigor Dimitrov’s and to be forgettable for months at a time. But I’ve learned my lesson. He’s 30 now. I know how this goes. I know that he’ll have that one week every season where he looks like a player who ought to own three majors, and I know that I’ll be lured into thinking that this is the time he turns it around, marrying his smooth and versatile technique to his sprints-and-splits physicality. And then six months and many first-round exits later I’ll think about how gullible I used to be. It’s one thing to have every shot; it’s another to know when to deploy what.
The results have been worse than usual this year, thanks in part to a smattering of injuries. Between the Australian Open in February and San Diego in October, he did not win three matches in a row, which he used to do reasonably often. But if Dimitrov plays tennis how it should look, why doesn’t he win more? Because that’s not what matters. Daniil Medvedev, of course, is a living negation of that silly idea. You can look and move like the inflated tube man flopping zestily in the wind outside a car dealership so long as you continue to hit the ball in a way that’s hard for your opponent to deal with. The rest is just cosmetic. And with the advent of YouTube and TikTok tutorials, I suspect it’s easier than ever for an aspiring tennis player to get caught up in how it all looks rather than how directly it allows them to win points. Not that Dimitrov came up in this environment, but he’s surely inspired his generation of imitators, just as he may or may not have xeroxed the strokes of a certain Swiss. Sometimes he seems like a great tennis player in the guise of a transcendent one.
That’s okay, though. It’ll always be good to look good. Virtues are many in this sport, and they aren’t all tethered to winning. And yet we now find ourselves in one of those auspicious Grigor weeks, where his style and his scores align, threatening you to believe in his upside all over again. In the second round, Dimitrov beat Reilly Opelka, whose treetop serving had overwhelmed him in their only previous meeting this summer in Canada. In the third round, Dimitrov then took on his gawky tennis antithesis, Mr. Medvedev himself—fresh off a first US Open title, chasing a long-shot year-end No. 1, and certainly the most dangerous player in the draw. Dimitrov went down a set and two breaks to Medvedev on a hard court, as close to a death sentence as any scoreline in the sport. Slowly and creakily the match began to turn Dimitrov’s way, possibly around the axis of a slick tweener half-volley from the baseline. Medvedev’s serving grew sloppy; he’d later complain that the courts were playing slow as clay. In those overlong rallies of sneaky entrapment that Medvedev tends to favor, Dimitrov realized he could hang in there, and even win.
Hubert Hurkacz awaited him in the fourth round. A bit of déjà vu: another young seeded opponent who weds big serves to counterpunching, and easily went up set and a break on him. Despite the added fatigue, Dimitrov managed to turn it around all over again, but not without a little drama. Both Grigors were variously present in this match. Bad Grigor looks complacent and passive in shot selection, as if his speed were a fail-safe that makes up for all his bad decisions. Good Grigor realizes that his speed is the means by which he cashes out on good decisions. This version gets up to the net, dances around his backhand, and doesn’t let a good opportunity to close out the point pass him by. He found enough of this version—even as the hot desert conditions seemed to be getting the best of him late in the third set, and even after he blinked while serving for the match—to win in a deciding tiebreak. Since arriving in Southern California, Dimitrov has now moved above .500 on the season. At the tail end of another disappointing season, halfway through two matches that seemed lost, the cheeky Bulgarian has offered the skeptical fan another few reasons to believe.
Above: Grigor Dimitrov is going deep in Indian Wells. (Getty)