Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Grigor Dimitrov leads younger players’ assault on men’s tennis’ Big Four of Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray

All-court game: Grigor Dimitrov made the semifinals at Wimbledon last year and cracked the top 10.
All-court game: Grigor Dimitrov made the semifinals at Wimbledon last year and cracked the top 10. Getty Images

Weary of the stranglehold the Big Four has on men’s tennis, an echelon of younger players is pressing for change. Call them Gen B, for they are on the cusp of breaking the monopoly and breaking through in Grand Slams.

Leading the charge is Grigor Dimitrov, a dynamic 23-year-old Bulgarian, who breezed through his second-round match at the Miami Open in 59 minutes Saturday, defeating another up-and-comer, Canada’s Vasek Pospisil, 6-2, 6-2.

Dimitrov avoided the unfortunate fate of his girlfriend, Maria Sharapova, who was upset in her opening round match by wild card Daria Gavrilova.

Dimitrov is in the vanguard of a trend toward youth on the men’s tour. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, 27, No. 2 Roger Federer, 33, No. 3 Rafael Nadal, 28, and No. 4 Andy Murray, 27, are the men to beat and have dominated the Grand Slams. In the top-100 rankings, 28 players are age 30 or older. So far this year, six different players age 30 and older have won nine of 19 singles titles.

One of the Big Four has lifted the winner’s trophy in 40 of the past 44 ATP Masters 1000 tournaments since 2010.

But there are signs of a youth movement. The Mount Rushmore of men’s tennis is looking down on new, emerging faces. Nine teens have spots in the top 200 compared with zero a year ago. Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, 24, and Kei Nishikori, 25, broke into the top 10 last year, with Nishikori advancing to the U.S. Open final and Raonic and Dimitrov to Wimbledon semifinals.

Four teens played in the second round at the Miami Open — the most since 2007 — among them Croatia’s Bora Coric, 18, and Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, 19, who both defeated Nadal in 2014.

“It’s an interesting time ahead,” Dimitrov said. “In the clutch matches against the dominant guys, there’s always a little piece missing. I think that will turn one day soon.”

Dimitrov is perhaps feeling the pressure to displace one of the stars because he has struggled so far this year. The No. 9 seed is 9-5 after winning a career-high 50 matches in 2014, including three titles on three different surfaces and ascending as high as No. 8.

He was nicknamed “Baby Fed” early on because of his one-handed backhand and an elegant, attacking style that reminds tennis fans of Federer. He’s a craftsman of shots, and he’s not afraid to come to the net. Dimitrov has shed that nickname and rejects any sort of time line for a player’s progress.

“I’m sick and tired of all the comparisons and the talk that at this age you’ve got to be here or at that age you’ve got to be there,” he said. “It puts a lot of expectations on players, especially the kids who are 17-19 years old. Everyone has his own way.”

Dimitrov is the only child of Dimitar, a tennis coach who coached his son until Dimitrov was 16, and Maria, a physical education teacher and former volleyball player. He grew up in Haskovo, then moved to Barcelona and Paris to further his development, winning the junior titles at Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 2008.

Now he splits his time between Manhattan Beach, California, and Monaco. He trains under Roger Rasheed, a former tennis player and Australian rules footballer.

“He needed a mentor to strengthen his direction, as a lot of kids need that hammer to develop the accountability you must have, because the mental part of your game is the weapon that needs to be nurtured the most,” Rasheed said. “Grigor is 25 percent of the way through the journey. I’ve got him to base camp at Mount Everest.”

Rasheed said too many pros have become comfortable with sitting on the shelf below the Big Four.

“It’s like they are watching a movie repeat over and over,” he said. “You’ve got to respect them, but at the same time you’ve almost got to give them the middle finger. Great players wake up fighting. They still want to kill you on the court. Their opponents have to decide they’ve had enough, that they are going to get in the dominant players’ faces and push them off the pedestal because they are certainly not going to walk away.”

Rasheed sees a dogged spirit in Dimitrov that is not in every athlete’s makeup.

Djokovic saw it, too, when Dimitrov took him to two tiebreakers in his four-set victory at Wimbledon.

“I was playing a future star,” he said.

While players such as Bjorn Borg, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander all won Grand Slam titles as teens, the last teen to win a Grand Slam was Nadal in 2005 at the French Open. Nadal said that as the demands of the game have evolved, it’s taking longer for players to reach their prime.

“I think the mentality of the new generation is different,” Nadal said. “They play juniors later. They mature more slowly than in the past. Probably it’s a mental thing.”

Said Murray: “People are breaking in at age 25, 26, 27 now. It’s a long road.”

Dimitrov said he’s ready to make the trek.

“The toughest part is to keep working and keep improving year after year,” he said. “You can never stop because no one else is going to stop to let you by. The best is yet to come.”

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