05:31 PM GMT November 22, 2017
Immediately after capturing the Nitto ATP Finals title, Grigor Dimitrov stormed into the stands and embraced Daniel Vallverdu, his coach since midway through 2016 and the man who finally harnessed the potential of Dimitrov and channeled it into the most successful year of his career.
No one had ever doubted Dimitrov's talent. The Bulgarian was known worldwide for his must-see groundstrokes and his abundance of skills. But before he and Vallverdu paired up last year, Dimitrov almost had too much talent, too many options. He admits to being unclear about how to approach his game and on the best way forward for his tennis.
Enter Vallverdu, who has helped simplify Dimitrov's game and guided the Bulgarian to his best season yet.
Dimitrov will end the year at a career-high No. 3 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. He also finished 2017 with a career-best four ATP World Tour titles (Brisbane International presented by Suncorp, Garanti Koza Sofia Open, Western & Southern Open and the Nitto ATP Finals), a full head of steam and unbridled emotions.
“[We] have a great connection. We see tennis the same way. We have that bond, and we really appreciate how the year has gone for us,” Dimitrov said.
Vallverdu is particularly proud of how his charge dealt with the pressure that comes with playing with so much at stake, including at the Nitto ATP Finals. Dimitrov, who beat David Goffin in the three-set final, composed himself well after the Belgian evened the match.
“Dimitrov battled through nerves, especially in the final, and found a way to win,” Vallverdu said. “When Dimitrov is in his zone, he obviously plays at a very high level but we've worked on getting him to compete even on those days when he's off. It became a question of attitude in the final, and Grigor answered that question.”
The Bulgarian demonstrated that positive attitude numerous times throughout the year, as his record reflects: He went 17-10 in tie-breaks, 8-5 against Top 10 players and 4-1 in finals.
Vallverdu has now worked with Dimitrov for more than a year, and the pair have a strong relationship in terms of communicating and taking each other's ideas into consideration. Building that relationship took time and effort, as the coach and player have very different personalities.
“In a year and a half, Dimitrov is just as receptive as the day we started,” Vallverdu said. “He's opened up to me over that time, sharing his opinions and his point of view on ambitions and motivations. For me, it's important to tell him why we do things a certain way, why we're out there training eight hours a day. I keep a strong focus on achieving short-term goals and reviewing performances after events.”
Another aspect of Dimitrov's game his coach has paid special attention to is his approach to matches and the game itself. Where Dimitrov is more passionate, Vallverdu is more pragmatic. The goal is to find a middle ground, where Dimitrov can combine his emotional self with a practical approach to produce a winning formula.
“Tennis is a lifestyle,” Vallverdu said. “The person you are off the court should be the same person who appears during crucial moments of a match. The player you see who is up 6-3, 2-0, might respond differently in a 5-5, 40/40 situation. During critical moments, that player might be rattled or intimidated. The player who confronts adversity the right way is the person who is accustomed to it, who has that mentality, that day-to-day routine to be comfortable under pressure. It's the time we put into that off the court that helps in those moments.”
Vallverdu's philosophy is clear: be level-headed on and off the court, ahead in a match or with the match on the line. Vallverdu also keeps outside distractions to a minimum and has built a sense of camaraderie within the team by participating in activities as a group.
“In regard to the team itself, we've made a concerted effort to keep the core circle as small as possible,” Vallverdu said. “We want to keep the focus on what's important and avoid unnecessary distractions. Of course, we do fun things off the court, but we do those things as a team. We try to keep things light and upbeat around Grigor, but we also keep our distance from people and things that might take his mind off of what's important. To play well, you can't let your head be somewhere else. Obviously, good results on the court make it easier to keep your mind on the game.”
Vallverdu's message has struck a chord with Dimitrov, who stayed on course throughout the 2017 season while rediscovering his form. For Vallverdu, Dimitrov had never lost that form in the first place. It was more a matter of putting some of the pieces back together.
“He's always been a top-flight player but in tennis, there's more to it than performing well in tournaments,” Vallverdu said. “The daily dedication, the training and the drive to keep improving – all of that has to come together, and it has for Grigor.”
Heading into the Nitto ATP Finals, Team Dimitrov's goal wasn't necessarily to win the last tournament of the year. Dimitrov's stellar performance in London surpassed even the expectations of Vallverdu.
“It's a very emotional victory,” said the Venezuelan coach. “Dimitrov set high goals for himself. Perhaps we as a team went into London hoping for a good showing, but he had higher expectations.”
A good start to the year set the pace for what would be a strong finish. One particular match that set the tone for things to come took place in January at the Australian Open, when Dimitrov pushed eventual runner-up Rafael Nadal to five sets. For Dimitrov, it was difficult to cope with falling just short of his first Grand Slam final, but for his coach, it was an opportunity for growth.
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“A loss like the one Grigor suffered to Nadal in Australia can hurt a player. Grigor is still a little hurt,” Vallverdu said. “He was so close to reaching his first final at a [Grand Slam], so it was difficult for him to accept that. Grigor was playing his best tennis and he still fell short. But we turned the loss into a positive. It helped us going into big matches later in the year. You saw that in London: Grigor started the tournament with a lot of pressure but he managed his nerves. So the loss to Nadal helped in that way.”
Nadal would factor into Dimitrov's development later in the year, when the Bulgarian player spent a week training with the current World No. 1 at the Rafa Nadal Tennis Academy in Mallorca. Vallverdu hoped his player would pick up a few pointers from the Spaniard, lessons that would hopefully translate to further success on the court. According to Vallverdu, the plan worked, as Dimitrov claimed his first title at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 level a few weeks later in Cincinnati.
“Grigor could see how Rafa conducts himself on and off the court,” Vallverdu said. “I have a good relationship with Nadal and I figured his professionalism and attitude would rub off on Grigor. My student got to see not only Nadal as a player but also as a person in private, and his formula for success over the past 15 years. That opened Dimitrov's eyes a little bit.”
With 2017 in the books, Dimitrov and his team are faced with a new challenge for 2018: Maintaining Dimitrov's drive while also continuing to improve. Vallverdu admits there's still work to do if his charge is to continue his climb to the top.
“It will take hard work to continue evolving and to compete at the highest level while also consolidating our high ranking,” Vallverdu said. “The competition in 2018 will be more intense. A lot of top players will be returning from injuries. Luckily, complacency won't be an issue for Grigor. He has taken a liking to winning. Work hard off the court, compete on it, reap the rewards – this is what will keep him hungry.”