Dimitrov Tries to Shed ‘Baby Federer’ Tag at French Open

Ever since he joined the professional tennis tour as a teenager, Grigor Dimitrov has been weighed down by expectations.

Nicknamed “Baby Federer” because his playing style resembles that of 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, the Bulgarian is trying to lose that tag at the French Open.

The 22-year-old took a big step in that process yesterday by reaching the third round of a major tournament for the first time. A 6-1, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 victory against France’s Lucas Pouille earned him a matchup with men’s top seed Novak Djokovic.

“I’ve been carrying that with me for many years, I don’t know what I have to do to get rid of it,” Dimitrov said of his nickname in an interview at the Rome Masters shortly before Roland Garros. “It will be nice if it ends.”

The 26th-seeded Dimitrov has been talked about as a future top player ever since he won the junior titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2008. In 2009, he began working with Peter Lundgren, a former coach of Federer, who drew comparisons between the two players. Just like Federer, Dimitrov has a solid one-handed backhand and strong all-court coverage.

Dimitrov said being likened to Federer was “cool” at first before becoming a burden.

“I thought I was there already, at 17, 18,” said Dimitrov, who is dating women’s French Open defending champion Maria Sharapova of Russia. “I was like, ‘I am the thing.’ Well, in the end I wasn’t nearly close to the thing.”

Rankings Progress

His progress has been slow and steady in the past five years. From a world ranking of 1,198 at the beginning of 2008, he got into the top 500 by the end of that year. Dimitrov was in the top 300 by the end of 2009, No. 106 by the end of 2010 and No. 76 a year later. He moved into the top 50 late last year, and began the French Open ranked 28th in the world. He is the youngest player currently in the top 50.

He’s pushed the world’s top players this season on European clay courts and is now seeded at a major for the first time.

In April, Dimitrov took seven-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal of Spain to three sets in the quarterfinals of the Monte Carlo Masters. Earlier this month, he knocked top seed Djokovic out in the second round at the Madrid Masters in a three-hour match.

In November, he switched from the Mouratoglou Academy in Paris to the Good to Great Tennis Academy in Stockholm and is coached by former tour players Mikael Tillstrom, Magnus Norman and Nicklas Kulti. Dimitrov said his five-week training session in Stockholm during the offseason at the end of 2012 was tough.

‘Sacrifice Things’

“I didn’t see the light for like three or four days,” he said. “It was a time I didn’t see anything besides courts and gym. That’s a bit of a bummer. But what can you do? You sacrifice things.”

Dimitrov, who is 6-foot-2 (1.88 meters) and weighs 176 pounds (80 kilograms), in the past has struggled with cramps and has run out of energy in long matches.

“I feel much stronger in my body, I am not aching as much as before,” he said.

Serbia’s Djokovic, 26, who lost only four games while defeating Argentina’s Guido Pella yesterday in the second round, said he’s wary of Dimitrov’s ability.

“He got more confident as he was getting big wins in last few months, and so he’s a tough player to beat now,” Djokovic told reporters. “I need to be on top of my game.”

Dimitrov said in a news conference at Roland Garros yesterday that he’s ready to take on Djokovic for the second time this month.

“I’m going to smile coming out on the court,” he said. “The most important thing is just to go out there and try to enjoy the game. And at the same time I’m really looking forward to playing at my best. You never know what’s going to happen.”

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