"Baby Federer" Is Growing Up, Collecting Scalps

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It can’t be totally pleasant to attract premature comparisons to the greatest of all time. Too early in his career, Grigor Dimitrov was saddled with the nickname “Baby Fed,” a comparison that spoke more to aesthetics than to his record of success: He has the same lethal, fluid groundstrokes as the Swiss master, that sweeping one-handed backhand and penetrating Eastern forehand. You could spend two and a half years breaking down slow-motion tape and appreciating the technical similarities in their playing styles. Or you could spend that same span scratching your belly and waiting for Dimitrov to win another ATP title, ever since the summer of 2014 when he won the Queen’s Club and cracked the semifinals at Wimbledon and got everyone hastily hyped on his potential.

Finally, this weekend, the 25-year-old Bulgarian broke that cold streak, winning the Brisbane International, an ATP 250-level event. And most revealingly, he left three top-10 players in his wake: first No. 8 Dominic Thiem, then No. 3 Milos Raonic, then No. 5 Kei Nishikori. Thiem and Nishikori he’d never beaten before, and big-serving Raonic presents as tough a hardcourt matchup as anyone not named Andy or Novak. If you’ve never watched Dimitrov play, these highlights from the finals against Nishikori offer as good a primer as any. Both these shotmakers hit a beautiful, authoritative stroke from both wings. Head to 10:23 for a concise summary of Dimitrov’s weapons: the backhand to stretch Nishikori wide, the slice plopped neatly in the back corner to run him to the other corner, the forehand ripped right into the same side of the court to wrong-foot his opponent for the kill. Considering how deep a ball Nishikori gave him, the tight angle Dimitrov produces on that last winner feels absurd.

Plenty of echoes of Roger, too, if you’re looking for them: the canny slices amid all the aggressive striking to adjust tempo, the moan-inducing backhand down the line at 7:00. And then there’s the point at 5:57, which might remind you of those classic, 60-second Federer service games, where he’d spear that serve right into the corner of the box, then feast on the first short ball that came his way. Even though Dimitrov’s footwork doesn’t always match Federer’s eerie, buoyant grace, he sure does hit the ball like him—hungry for new angles, relentlessly offensive, easy on the eyes.


With this fresh hardware, Dimitrov’s ranking improves to No. 15, two spots above his nick-namesake. That ranking still clearly undersells his current level of play, so you can expect him to explode a star or two early on at the Australian Open, which begins next week. We’ll have to see how the bracket shakes out—it comes out this Friday—to learn whose day will be ruined.