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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Monday, January 8, 2024


John McEnroe favors Novak Djokovic to defend his AO title, but if the No. 1 falters, Brisbane champion Grigor Dimitrov is Mac's pick to rise down under.

Photo credit: Matthew Calvis

Unplugging from a stress source, Grigor Dimitrov is dialing up his most electrifying tennis in years.

The 32-year-old Dimitrov dropped his opening set of Brisbane International to old rival Andy Murray then reeled off 10 consecutive sets to snap a title drought.

More: Nadal Out of Australian Open

A dynamic Dimitrov defeated top-seeded Holger Rune 7-6(5), 6-4 in Sunday’s Brisbane final to claim his ninth career title and snap a seven-year title drought.

Dimitrov has posted a 19-5 mark in his last 24 matches, including ending 2023 with a spirited run to the Rolex Paris Masters final where he lost to Novak Djokovic.

Ten-time Australian Open champion Djokovic is the strong favorite to collect a record 25th Grand Slam title in Melbourne this month.

But if the Serbian superstar falters, former No. 1 John McEnroe sees one dangerous dark horse who can win a maiden major in Melbourne: Grigor Dimitrov.

In a Zoom call with the media today to promote ESPN’s Australian Open coverage, starting in the U.S. on Saturday, January 13th at 7 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN+ and at midnight on ESPN2, McEnroe said Djokovic is clearly the dominant favorite.

If Djokovic, who was hampered by a wrist injury in his United Cup loss to Alex de Minaur falters, McEnroe says watch out for darkhorse Dimitrov to surprise.

“Obviously, Novak by far, if he’s healthy, is the guy that would be the big favorite,” ESPN analyst McEnroe told the media today.

“If I had to pick one guy to potentially sneak through, if you want to call it that, and I’m really happy that I see this late in his career that he has the potential to do something that he’s never come close to doing.

“I would pick Grigor Dimitrov. The guy looks as good as the Top 5 or Top 6 guys. I would consider that completely sneaking through even though Grigor is like No. 12 in the world [No. 13] now.

“Then the obvious [contenders] Alcaraz, Djokovic, Sinner, Rune, Zverev, Medvedev and Tsitsipas has been in the finals there. Those guys. And then Ben Shelton, I believe, is gonna win majors. Sebastian Korda would you call that sneaking through well maybe he’d be sneaking through.

“I don’t know if physically Korda’s ready to move through yet. He’s got an unusual problem—he needs to put on weight, he needs to get stronger—normally you want to be really thin. I’d still be surprised not to see the top guys do it.”

A recharged Dimitrov has reached semifinals or better in three of his last four tournament starts.

Dimitrov says small stretches of digital detox have helped him find inner peace—a quality he’s carried on court.

“I think there are times throughout the day where, as I said, I take some time for myself to just go for a walk and put my phone away,” Dimitrov said. “There is always like a period throughout the day that I always take for myself, and I think that's also what I'm very happy with. It's a work.

“It's an internal work, as well. It's not just outside. It's not just stepping out on the center court. It's a lot of work on the court. Of course the fitness, you know, the nutrition, the sleep, rest, and all that. But lastly, don't ever forget yourself, because just as the tennis, the sport, everything is so important to you, you don't need to forget your inner world, your inner peace.

“And I work hard on that. Of course there's always two sides of everything, so you need to make sure you feed the right wolf.” 

At an age when some of his contemporaries begin to see their games chewed up by the younger wolves on Tour, Dimitrov is applying his all-court arsenal successfully.

Bold court positioning, brilliant ball-striking and a disorientating ability to alter the spins and heights of his shots, often using a series of low slice backhands then banging flatter forehand drives, has empowered Dimitrov during this revival.

Dimitrov is not only taking the ball earlier when he has offensive opportunities, his transition from defensive to offensive is now sharper and more decisive.

Remember, 2017 ATP Finals champion Dimitrov has had success down under before.

In addition to his two Brisbane titles, Dimitrov advanced to the 2017 Australian Open semifinals.

There, the Bulgarian all-courter pushed Rafael Nadal to the brink in a pulsating four hour, 56-minute clash. Nadal fought off Dimitrov, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4, in a spirited semifinal to reach his 24th Grand Slam final and first major title match since he won the 2014 Roland Garros.

These days, Dimitrov, who debuted as a Lacoste underwear model earlier this month, believes he’s better than the player who rose to a career-high ranking of No. 3 after blitzing through the ATP Finals at the O2 in London undefeated seven years ago.

Dimitrov said the rising tide of talent on the ATP Tour forced him to adapt and get better.

“I want to say I'm a better player now than I was back then,” Dimitrov said. “I think because of the style of everybody else, also had to alter mine a little bit, had to find a way to get through those powerful guys differently.

“I think everyone has seen it now, that I'm playing a little bit different than I used to play before.

"Basically I'm trying to find my way around the court against sort of a different generation. I've gone through quite a few generations over the year, so many different players. All the time I had to adapt.”


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