‘Baby Fed’ no more: Grigor Dimitrov has grown up and is in form of his life

<span>Grigor Dimitrov uncorks his gorgeous trademark backhand at the Australian Open this year.</span><span>Photograph: Joly Victor/ABACA/Shutterstock</span>
Grigor Dimitrov uncorks his gorgeous trademark backhand at the Australian Open this year.Photograph: Joly Victor/ABACA/Shutterstock

Grigor Dimitrov was describing his improbable journey from humble origins in Haskovo, Bulgaria, a country with almost no men’s tennis heritage before him, to the very top levels of his sport when suddenly he paused: “I had all these comparisons with Roger [Federer] for so many years,” he said, laughing. “Thank you for not saying it. I appreciate it.”

He did not have to elaborate. From the moment he emerged on the ATP Tour, armed with excellent athleticism, a large toolbox of shots and a sickly sweet single-handed backhand, the early years of Dimitrov’s career were plagued by uncomfortable comparisons and that dreaded nickname: Baby Fed. It is, evidently, difficult to discuss his beginnings without touching on the subject.

Related: Andy Murray to make return from injury in Geneva before French Open

“It was flattering,” he says of the early hype. “At the same time, I’m really way past that. Even back in the day, I thought it was funny but at some point I was like: ‘I would like to establish myself as the tennis player I am, as the person I am.’ I think that was one of my goals to keep on going with it. To be: ‘OK, this is my day, this is my time to establish myself as this player that has nothing to do with anybody else.’ I think I did a great job with that and, honestly, I was very proud of that part in particular because I really wanted to have my own name.”

After 16 years of professional competition, Dimitrov has undeniably made his own name. Having first broken into the top 10 a decade ago, his biggest achievements include winning the ATP Finals in 2017 and reaching semi-finals at three of the four grand slam tournaments, winning more than $26m in prize money. He has pushed Bulgaria’s highest ATP ranking – Orlin Stanoytchev’s No 96 in 2000 – to his career high of No 3.

While most of his contemporaries, such as Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic, are struggling to remain fit or on the verge of retirement, Dimitrov’s resurgence has been one of the most significant stories on the tour this year.

Over the past seven months, he has returned to the top 10 with two Masters 1000 finals, at Paris in October and Miami in March, his first title in seven years in Brisbane and excellent week-by-week consistency. In Rome on Friday he plays the Japanese Yoshihito Nishioka in the round of 64. The grass season is still to come.

“Back in the day, [reaching the top 10] was something that I had to prove,” he says. “After that, I had nothing to prove on that end. I have always been very hung up on running my own race, running my own pace and doing the things that I really want to do. The things that I really like. Now being back in the top 10, this is the result of the hard work we have all put in as a team.”

The obsession with Dimitrov’s similarities to Federer means his background is less well known. While Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena Maleeva, the only three sisters to reach the WTA top 10, carried the Bulgarian flag before him, he had no example to follow on the ATP Tour.

His father, a tennis coach, and his mother, a former volleyball player, worked hard with limited means to help. His first flight to an international event was purchased with money scraped together from his grandparents’ pensions. After he had outgrown Bulgaria’s shallow talent pool, he became financially dependent on various academies.

Related: Jack Draper: ‘I contemplated what my life would be if I didn’t have tennis’

Much of Dimitrov’s career has coincided with periods when Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal collectively shut out nearly all challengers. While some wonder what he and his contemporaries could have achieved without the big three, Dimitrov is adamant he is a far better player having faced them. After taking so many lessons from them, he says, nothing behind the baseline scares him any more.

“They’re just different,” says Dimitrov, who will be 33 on 16 May. “I’ve spent so much time playing with them for so many years. Not only their physicality but their mentality is scary. The way they have been able to have such consistency, not for one, two, three years but nearly their whole careers is pretty staggering. It’s pretty scary if you think about it, in a good way.

“I feel like I’ve been able to learn a lot from them, the way they have been handling not only pressure but themselves throughout, on a daily basis, which I think is one of the most difficult things.”

Despite his significant achievements from modest beginnings, for much of Dimitrov’s career he has been seen as an underachiever, a player who has not always been able to pair his considerable talent with nerves and a killer instinct under pressure. But perhaps, as he continues to demonstrate the passion and discipline that have allowed him to play at such a high level for so many years, he is on the verge of changing this narrative, too.