Will Grigor Dimitrov ever shed his tag of being the nearly man of tennis?

Grigor Dimitrov’s second coming had all the hallmarks of something very special.

With Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray sitting out the final few weeks of 2017 and Roger Federer suffering a recurrence of his back problem that derailed his hopes of winning the US Open for a sixth time, the tennis world was waiting for a new hero to fill the void left by the absent legends.

Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev had been promoted as the leaders of a bold new tennis era by ATP chiefs, but it was a founder member of that undercurrent of potential champion who stepped forward to seize the moment.

Dimitrov was hailed as a potential Wimbledon king as long ago as 2014, when he lifted the Queen’s Club title in London after a thrilling final against Feliciano Lopez. His oft-used nickname of ‘Baby Fed’ seemed suitably attached to a Bulgarian who played with a slice of the grace and mastery you might expect from the great Federer, yet it was a burden that weighed heavily on his shoulders.

So much so that it took Dimitorv time to come to terms with his status as the one of the next big things in tennis. Some three years, in fact, as he did not realise his potential until a breakthrough win at the 2017 Cincinnati Masters, with his subsequent win in the ATP World Tour finals at the 02 Arena in November.

So why did it take so long for Dimitrov to crack the glass ceiling he appeared to be knocking on four years ago?

“Maybe I needed that time to find out about so many aspects of my game,” stated the 26-year-old, as Tennis365 caught up with him amid his triumphant World Tour finals run last year.

“It took me a lot of years to settle and get to where I am now. You need to find your balance, find your own way to exist, to follow your dream. Having a good team behind you is important and, with their help, I have never felt more comfortable on the court. I am happy to be on court now and that is important for any player.

“Maybe I was overthinking sometimes. It was important to focus on [things] match by match, not thinking about what will happen if I win, what it would mean to lose. You have to focus on one match at a time. Some people do this naturally, for others it can take time.

“All the nicknames they gave me when I first came through have stuck and you don’t want that to be with you for long. You want to become known for what you do on court and not by comparisons to another player. I want to create my own legend, my own trademarks and by winning in Cincinnati and at the ATP finals, maybe I have started to do that.

“My aim at the start of 2017 was to finish in the top 10, play in the World Tour Finals, do what I could at the big events, so to finish as No 3 in the world was beyond what we expected.”

With success came inflated expectations and as Dimitrov headed into the first Grand Slam of 2018, he had a whole new billing to live up to.

The nerves that have affected his ambitions throughout his career were in evidence during an Australian Open run that ended with a thumping quarter-final defeat against Britain’s Kyle Edmund, with his Rotterdam final against Federer in mid-February proving to be another huge disappointment as he was comprehensively outclassed by a legend he has barely threatened in seven meetings, despite some suggestions he was carrying an injury in that match.

So once again, the tennis world is asking whether Dimitrov is ready and will ever be ready to accept all the burdens that come with being a champion?

Just two semi-finals and a host of early exits in in his 30 Grand Slam tournaments can hardly be considered great for a player boasting such sumptuous talents and, alarmingly, he also boasts a losing record against the current top five in the ATP rankings as well as the injury hit trio of Djokovic, Murray and Kei Nishikori.

With his glorious backhand, improved serve, silky movement and that sprinkling of genius all the greats have, Dimitorv appears to be a champion in waiting and he is convincing himself that his moment will come on one of the game’s grandest stages.

“If you ask me whether I am ready to win a Slam I will obviously say yes and what I did last year will give me confidence if I get into that position, but you need to beat a lot of good players to win these events,” he adds.

“We have the guys who have won so many majors playing some of the best tennis of their career and the standard below them has improved as well.

“What I think is I’m one of the guys who can compete for the big titles and I think I have proved that. Now I need to make the next step.”

Talent is only one part of the ingredient mix that turns great tennis players into Grand Slam champions and after all these years, we are still waiting to discover whether Dimitrov is the real deal.

By Kevin Palmer