by Ben Rothenberg
After a summer in which his results plummeted so far that he nearly walked away for a long break, Grigor Dimitrov has reset himself in time to become the most surprising semifinalist at the U.S. Open.
“I didn’t expect things to unfold for me like this,” Dimitrov said Wednesday, a day after he stunned Roger Federer in his first visit to the U.S. Open quarterfinals. “Since the past five, six weeks, it was definitely hard to believe.”
Dimitrov’s current upswing, which he hopes to continu Friday in his semifinal against fifth-seeded Daniil Medvedev, has followed a summer of lows.
After starting last season No. 3 in the world, Dimitrov opened this year in the top 20 but soon floundered. His ranking slipped as low as 78th, with his nadir coming in Atlanta in July, when he lost to 405th-ranked Kevin King. At the Rogers Cup and the Cincinnati Masters, Dimitrov lost in the first round.
As he continued to struggle, Dimitrov said at one point he even considered ending his season early. He had never advanced past the fourth round in New York, anyway, and there was no indication this year would be different.
“There were so many doubts that are coming into my head, thoughts of maybe potentially stopping the season and resting up a little bit and building up again,” he said. “After Atlanta, and overall in general, this season has been very, very hard. I just couldn’t find a good rhythm at all. I kept on struggling with the shoulder, kept struggling with small things on a daily basis, but I had to push through it.”
He added: “I could control only what I could, and so I kept on believing, believing, believing. In our sport, you can’t just let go. Once you do that, it becomes even harder. Even if I was dropping to 200 in the world, no ranking at all, if the will was still there, I’d know what I had to do. I’d know the way.”
Dimitrov, a 28-year-old from Bulgaria, had once been considered among the most promising prospects of his generation. Because of the similarity between his strokes and Federer’s, he was labeled Baby Federer, a nickname he quickly came to resent.
“Younger players coming up, I think they should never be compared to anybody,” Dimitrov said. “I think they should have more air to breathe, and a lot more time to find themselves first before anything else. I found that out the hard way.”
There is one quality of Federer’s that Dimitrov actively emulates, however: his ability to carry on after disappointments.
“That’s what I’ve noticed the most with him,” Dimitrov said. “His ability to do that is tremendous, and I’ve always admired that from him, as well as so many other things.”
He added: “Instantly your reaction is to get down, to start overthinking, which is very hard. One of the most important qualities to learn is to move on and let go. It’s really hard. It’s one of the hardest things I have had to learn, and I’m still in the process of learning. I haven’t mastered it.”
Dimitrov has had to rely on himself more than usual in this tournament. After his disappointing summer, his coaches Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek elected not to travel to New York to be with him at the Open. They remain in close contact on the phone, Dimitrov said, but he now makes more of the decisions about how to spend his hours away from the court.
At times, that means instead of resting he has been spending extra time in the gym or going on long runs.
“What gives me comfort is that I know I’ve done extra work than my opponent,” Dimitrov said of the change in his preparation. “That gives you comfort already: I have stronger legs than him, I’ve done more work than him.”
Dimitrov also said he has been taking moments to enjoy being at the Open more than before, to make a conscious decision to avail himself of small privileges he had once overlooked, such as practicing on the tournament’s main courts or attending a Backstreet Boys concert in Brooklyn in August.
Dimitrov posted dozens of videos from the concert on his Instagram account, filming the stage as he loudly and proudly sang along.
“That was the best — I actually was holding back, to be honest,” Dimitrov said, beaming. “That was one of the biggest highlights for me this year, no doubt. I’ve been a fan of these guys since I was a kid.”
He added, “For some reason I know pretty much all the words.”
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