Bulgarians hail Dimitrov after London triumph

Reuters
The 26-year-old made headlines across the Balkan country after overcoming some early nerves to beat fellow debutante David Goffin 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 in an epic final.
Reuters
Reuters

Grigor Dimitrov celebrates after beating Belgium's David Goffin in the ATP Finals final at the O2 Arena in London on November 19, 2017. The Bulgarian won 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 and will rise to a career-high No. 3 in the year-end rankings.

Grigor Dimitrov has been hailed as the new lord of tennis by his home fans and media after the Bulgarian won the biggest title of his career when he captured the season-ending ATP Finals in London on Sunday.

The 26-year-old made headlines across the Balkan country after overcoming some early nerves to beat fellow debutante David Goffin 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 in an epic final with millions of his countrymen glued to their television screens.

The thrilling two-and-a-half-hour contest was always guaranteed a huge audience in Dimitrov's homeland, with the match shown live on three Bulgarian television channels, including state broadcaster BNT1, and streamed on several local websites.

"Dimitrov brought tears of happiness to thousands of Bulgarians at the O2 Arena and millions in front of TV screens," sports website www.tennis24.bg wrote.

Dimitrov's unbeaten run in London earned him a cool US$2.5 million, with the 1,500 ranking points catapulting him to an impressive third place in the end-of-year rankings — behind only tennis greats Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

The three Maleeva sisters, Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena, who took turns to feature in the world's top six in the 1980s and 1990s, made the women's game successful in Bulgaria.

However, Orlin Stanoytchev was the highest-ranked Bulgarian male player after reaching world No. 96 in 2000 before Dimitrov's emergence on the tennis scene a decade ago.

Dimitrov, who received raucous support from flag-waving Bulgarian fans during his matches in London, has become hugely popular in the Black Sea country of 7.1 million people in recent years and is seen as an inspiration for future generations.

"Grigor is a successful role model," national tennis center manager Georgi Donchev said. "In the last two or three years, there has been a boom in the number of children taking up tennis."

Dobri Belivanov, the mayor of Dimitrov's home town Haskovo, said he would propose that courts in the southern town be named after the player.

Dimitrov, who was awarded honorary citizenship by Haskovo last year, is considering setting up a tennis academy in the town, which has a population of 76,000.

Soccer is the most popular sport in Bulgaria and the national team's run to the 1994 World Cup semifinals remains the most inspirational sporting event in the country's history, triggering a euphoria that few believe will ever be repeated.

Bulgaria has slipped into decline since that impressive showing in the United States, failing to qualify for a string of major tournaments, and a number of fans have subsequently turned their attention to other sports.

Federer-Nadal match-up

In London on Sunday, it wasn't the Federer-Nadal matchup many fans had hoped for, but they were left satisfied as the two 26-year-olds delivered the longest final since the tournament returned to a three-set format in 2008, The Associated Press reported.

Dimitrov won in 2 hours, 30 minutes, 15 seconds, adding 11 minutes to the mark set by Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2011.

That wasn't the only record Dimitrov set. After winning all five of his matches at the O2 Arena, he became the first player to win the elite tournament on debut since 1998, when Alex Corretja of Spain triumphed in Hanover.

"I was a little bit tired," said Dimitrov, who beat Goffin for the loss of just two games when they met on Wednesday. "I had to play a few matches obviously back-to-back against solid opponents. I knew that David is going to try something new. He had to be aggressive in order so he doesn't let me play my game."

Goffin's adjustments paid off early as he broke Dimitrov's first two service games either side of losing his own, before settling down to control the opener.

However, Dimitrov fought his way back. He leveled in the eighth game before breaking once more in the 12th to snatch the set, despite Goffin hitting eight more winners.

Dimitrov's confidence carried into the second set, where he brought up the first break point in the sixth game, only for Goffin to produce a stunning cross-court backhand winner to save it. The momentum back with him, Goffin broke the following game for a 4-3 lead and calmly closed out the set.

Having become the sixth player to beat Nadal and Federer at the same tournament — the latter from a set down in the semifinals — Goffin had every reason to be confident after drawing level. But he wasted four break points in the opening game and they would turn out to be his only chances in the decider.

"I think after this week I'm a better player mentally," said Goffin, who ends the season at a career-high No. 7 ranking. "I proved to myself that I can do it."


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