Commentary

The rise of Grigor Dimitrov

Updated: May 26, 2014, 8:03 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

The giggles on the other end of the line were totally unexpected.

Maria Sharapova -- known for fiery fist pumps, icy glares and relentless cries of "Come on!" that often sound more like a calculated irritant for her opponent than a positive affirmation for herself -- is pretty, not frilly. And yet here she was, giggling and gushing about her boyfriend, Grigor Dimitrov, like a Katy Perry song brought to life.

"Grigor is the best thing to ever happen in my life," she said between sighs. "He's so sweet and considerate, and because we both play tennis, he understands the life I live, because he's living it, too. I love him so much."

And the former No. 1 is not the only tennis fixture with eyes for Dimitrov.

Since January, only six players have had more visits to their players' pages on the ATP website than he has -- Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, newly crowned Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka and beloved veteran David Ferrer. And considering their average age is about 29 and Dimitrov just turned 23 this month, you can see why his appearance fees have gone up and a couple of big-named apparel companies are in a bidding war for his services. Sharapova's man is projected by many to be the man once Federer and the others are gone -- assuming he bothers to wait that long.

When the season started, Dimitrov was No. 23 with one title. He's now No. 12 with three titles. If the year-end tournament -- reserved for the top eight players of the year -- started today, he'd be in it.

And on top of everything else: He's hot.

Now, that's not important in terms of wins and losses, but when tournament directors look in the stands and see the "I love you, Grigor" signs or Dimitrov's face silk-screened on a T-shirt, they know his being hot is good for business. And because of Dimitrov's looks, his relationship with Sharapova, his affinity for pop culture, the fact he calls L.A. home -- it all adds up to someone who has the potential to be a big star on and off the court in the U.S. That's something that has gone missing from the men's game since Andy Roddick stopped doing late night.

"A lot of people are expecting Grigor to fill in that void," said Greg Sharko, the ATP's director of media information. "He had an outstanding junior career, and he's got that 'it' factor to be a big star.

"We have 36 players over the age of 30 in the top 100, which is an all-time high, and we only have one teen in the top 200. It's hard for young guys to win on tour, but he's finding a way to do it. That's one of the reasons why so many people are looking at him."

Including the folks he's trying to dethrone.

In Rome, Murray grabbed a brush and blow dryer to playfully fix Dimitrov's hair for the cameras.

At Indian Wells, Djokovic took time out of his day to crash Dimitrov's news conference, telling the room full of journalists, "My friend Grigor here, best-looking guy on tour. You don't need to talk about tennis too much; you've had so much success this year. Let's talk about your looks." 

And after the laughter subsided, Dimitrov, who is as charismatic as he is talented, asked Djokovic, "What do you want to know?"

Murray was just having some fun, and Djokovic's nickname is Joker for a reason, but the two moments were not totally inconsequential. For the Brit and the Serb to publicly acknowledge the play and appeal of Dimitrov -- unprompted, mind you -- spoke volumes about how the rising star is perceived in the locker room.

What do you want to know?

For a tennis world wondering what will happen once Djokovic and the rest of the big four move on, the answer to that question is simple: everything.

* * *

A couple of days before the Sony Open in Miami, members of Virginia Wesleyan's tennis team were inside one of the smaller stadiums watching a practice session. Because they were standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the railing closest to the entrance -- inadvertently creating a wall -- anyone who wanted a glimpse couldn't do so by standing by the door. You had to go inside. Even then, you had to sit a couple of rows up to be able to see over a human blockade that didn't appear to be moving anytime soon.

Perhaps when you have a chance to see the future, you can be forgiven for hogging the view.

American Sam Querry fired off a few aces that prompted the occasional applause. But it was the play of Dimitrov that brought out the "oohs" and "aahs." When the players took small breaks to speak with their camps, most eyes were on him. And when practice was over, Querry left the stadium with relative ease, while it looked as if Dimitrov needed an airlift. The college team created a wall, most everyone else formed a moat. In the middle, smiling and happily signing autographs, was the player with graceful court movement. A variety of shots. A one-handed backhand that still looks a bit out of place in this two-hander's world.

He doesn't like to hear it, but Dimitrov handles a crowd and plays a lot like ...

"The first time I heard 'Baby Federer,' I was maybe 16," he said. "I was being coached by Peter Lundgren, and then one time in an interview he said I was better than Federer was at that age. After that it just sort of took off.

"At first it was funny. Then it was irritating. Now I try to ignore it. In the past, if I hit a one-hand backhand down the line, I could hear people say, 'Let's go, Roger,' and it would throw me off my game a little bit. Not anymore. Now I'm able to focus on what I need to be doing and trying to hit the shot I want."

Case in point: the crazy cross-court tweener he hit against Marius Copil in the second round in Madrid. Coming to the net behind a relatively weak approach shot, Dimitrov was sent scrambling back to the baseline after Copil hit a lob. Showing speed, but not panic, Dimitrov not only hit a great shot from between his legs, but was able to finish the point with a swing volley. It was the kind of make-it-look-easy one-two punch we've seen Federer pull off time and time again. And like Federer, Dimitrov didn't make a big deal about it afterward.

Defense.

Shot-making.

Grace.

The comparisons do not come completely out of nowhere, although you can't really blame Dimitrov for distancing himself from any moniker that starts with "Baby." Living up to the hype for any athlete is not easy. Trying to do so with a nickname that reminds you and everyone else of the player you are not can kill a promising career a (e.g., USC basketball great Harold "Baby Jordan" Miner).

Lundgren, who was Federer's juniors coach, might have meant well, but the only "Baby Federer" Dimitrov wants to talk about is the 32-year-old's new set of twins.

"You know what's funny? I've hit with [Federer] a few times, talk to him, he's really nice and friendly, but he has never brought up the nickname," Dimitrov said. "You have to think he's heard about it, but he's never brought it up. Maybe it's because he's still playing and doesn't appreciate people saying he's past his prime and stuff like that. But I'm glad he doesn't bring it up, because it's a little embarrassing, to tell you the truth. I mean, I haven't done anything close to what he's accomplished."

Which makes his signing with Team8, a boutique sports agency created by onetime IMG agent Tony Godsick and -- surprise, surprise -- Federer, a bit curious, to say the least.

"We asked everybody, and I mean everybody, which young player they thought would be the next great champion, and his name kept popping up," said Godsick, whose company also signed 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro. "What we really liked about him is that not only is he a great tennis player, he's just a really neat kid, too.

"He's got that 'it' factor you look for. All he needs to do is keep working hard and win."

Which explains why Godsick and Federer would want him, but if Dimitrov doesn't like comparisons, why join his team?

"That's a good question," he said with a half smile. He took a deep breath, leaned back in his seat and sat silently for a few seconds. His eyes drifted from being in the moment to seemingly not present at all. Then after another deep, audible breath, his focus returned and he has his answer: "In order to be the best, you have to be around the best."

Intentional or not, his answer extends beyond his tennis life.

* * *

Shanghai, October 2012.

Dimitrov was there preparing for a tournament. He was out to grab a bite to eat when he noticed a tennis match on television. It was the quarterfinals in Beijing, and Sharapova was playing.

"We had always flirted, you know. Given each other looks here and there. But that day, I just thought she was so beautiful. So I emailed her."

Must've been one helluva note.

At the time, Dimitrov was No. 60 in the world without a title to his name. Sharapova, on the other hand, had just completed the career Slam after winning the French a few months earlier. When you look at it that way, the phrase "she was out of his league" sounds less like a cliché and more like common sense.

But it's working.

And one can't help notice the timing between their dating and his rise.

"People who think I'm the reason why he's playing so well do not give him enough credit," Sharapova said. "He's extremely talented, and he's successful all on his own. I just try to be there to support him."

But in keeping with the rationale that led him to sign with Federer's Team8 agency -- despite not liking the comparisons to him -- Dimitrov said being in a relationship with one of the best has taught him what it takes to be the best.

"She is so professional. She knows where she's supposed to be and what's expected of her at appearances, and she balances that so well with doing what it takes to be a great, great player. She's just an amazing person."

He moved into her L.A. home last year although, because of the nomadic lifestyle of professional tennis, the two are just as apt to see each other in another country as they are in Southern California. And when they do end up playing in the same tournament, they do not room together.

"It would be tough because our schedules are still so different," he said. "Like if one of us has a match that goes late and the other is in bed sleeping because we have an early practice or appearance, that makes it tough."

Plus Dimitrov enjoys his alone time.

"I can take five showers in one day," he said. "I don't like taking showers in the locker room after a match. Not because I'm uncomfortable being naked around other people, I just like quiet and taking my time. Letting the water wash my thoughts away. And I take so many because I like being clean and well-groomed.

"I get manicures and pedicures because I don't want to be one of those guys with messed-up hands and feet. I'm serious. Tennis players have the ugliest feet. I didn't want to be that guy with the messed-up feet."

If he sounds like a pretty boy, he is.

But not in an off-putting-lead-singer-of-a-boy-band sort of way.

His legs and arms have the prerequisite scabs on them to show he's not afraid to dive after balls. Despite the manicures, he still has the calluses around the top portion of his palm that come from thousands of serves and groundstrokes. He's a pretty boy in a Tom Brady way, except cooler. While Brady's words often sound carefully chosen, Dimitrov's comes across as spontaneous, and thus more genuine. When he says he listens to hip-hop, you believe him. When his voice lowers to a near whisper as he talks about the loneliness he sometimes feels on tour (he's the only Bulgarian in the top 300), you get it. When he shares his love of architecture and fashion or his unusual fascination with Johnny Depp -- "I try to dress like him. I saw him once from a distance, but I was too scared to say anything" -- it all sounds like it's coming from an outsider who wants in as opposed to a poser trying to impress a stranger.

What doesn't come across is the "black heart" many people assumed that Serena Williams -- who dated Dimitrov before Sharapova did -- was referring to in a Rolling Stone story that sparked a testy catfight at Wimbledon.

In the piece, Williams, in a conversation with her sister Venus, is reported to have said, "She's still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it." To which Sharapova responded at a pre-tournament presser: "If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids." 

When you think about it, the All England club was the perfect location to reboot the Williams-Sharapova rivalry, considering it was there, back in 2004, where Sharapova upset Williams for the title, that their beef began.

For those who like quirky numbers, here's a tidbit: For nine consecutive years, Forbes has named Sharapova the highest-paid female athlete in the world. And for 10 consecutive years, she has lost to Williams each time they have played each other. 

Not counting the unofficial battle for Dimitrov, of course.

"I don't think Serena meant that in the way people think," he said about the "black heart" quote. "She knows I'm not a bad person. Things just didn't -- I don't know, they didn't work out.

"I learned a lot from that relationship. I don't want to get into why it didn't work out; that's private. But I will say that I don't hold any ill feelings toward her and I wish her nothing but happiness."

As to why he would date both given their rivalry.

"I wasn't thinking about their history, because it didn't have anything to do with me."

* * *

Everyone's favorite pick to be the future of men's tennis has titles and quality wins against Djokovic and Murray. But he also has three consecutive first-round exits at the U.S. Open and three consecutive second-round defeats at Wimbledon. If he's to win the French, he'll likely have to make it past Nadal in the quarters. The last time the two played, he lost 6-2 6-2 -- and it wasn't that close

All are reminders that this next-great-champion thing is going to be tough to achieve. You know, just in case the two higher-ranked youngsters -- 23-year-old Milos Raonic and 24-year-old Kei Nishikori (who has yet to drop a set in two matches against Dimitrov) -- aren't reminder enough.

"I've been trying to get stronger," he said. "This isn't the old days, where guys didn't lift that much and weren't that strong. I'm playing against big guys. But I can see all of the work paying off. I can last longer on court against older players now. I'm getting stronger. My team had a plan, and we're reaching our goals and that's exciting. That motivates me to work even harder."

It's true.

While most people point to the love of Sharapova as being the spark in his game, the fact she calls L.A. home might have also played a role.

Dimitrov was 28-21 in 2013 when he announced he was leaving the Sweden-based Good to Great Academy and hiring the Australian-based Roger Rasheed as his coach. Rasheed had coached Lleyton Hewitt and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and helped Gael Monfils reach a career-high No. 7 ranking. Not only does being based in L.A. make it easier logistically for Dimitrov to train in Australia while still finding time to be with his girlfriend, the Dimitrov-Rasheed partnership has led to a 34-9 record and the player's first quarterfinal appearance in a major and semifinal appearance at a Masters 1000.

"Grigor has in this short space of time improved in every facet of the game," Rasheed said. "The main aim for me was to get Grigor to see the picture in his head in regards to what we want to achieve.

"Each day we need to get out on the court and achieve in relation to his output. His belief in where he is going is gaining strength, and that adds enormous value to the product [he] deliver[s]."

If he's to win the French, he has to make it past the player who knocked him out in Australia -- Nadal. I know, right. And to make matters worse, the last time he played the No.1 on clay, Rafa beat him like he stole something, 6-2 6-2 in the semis of Rome.

Mobbed in Miami. Greeted like a movie star in Madrid. Last year at the Aegon Championships in London, there was a collection of ballgirls on the verge of tears after he dropped the first set against Dudi Sela and the third-set tiebreak. All of this for a guy who has yet to crack the top 10. For a man who says he loves the life of a tennis player, but that his life is not all about tennis. He has other interests, passions. And he looks forward to the day when he can pursue those as well.

"I don't think I can be around the sport when I retire," he said. "You know how some players are able to become coaches? I don't think that's me. It would be too frustrating to have to travel like a player but not be out there. Who knows? I don't know the future."

He might not know the future. But there appears to be a whole industry hoping he is it.

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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