NEW YORK — Grigor Dimitrov started to answer questions about his play in an interview at Indian Wells earlier this year when Novak Djokovic pulled up a chair next to the 23-year-old rising star and told him talk of tennis was overrated.
“Let’s talk,” Djokovic said, putting his arm around Dimitrov. “My friend Grigor here, best-looking guy on the tour. You don’t need to talk about tennis too much; you had so much success this year. Let’s talk about your looks.”
Dimitrov’s square-jaw broke into laughter.
“Well,” Dimitrov began, “what do you want to know?”
Considered the most likely candidate to usher in a new generation of Grand Slam champions, Dimitrov has a fluid, appealing style of play. In his 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 win Friday over Dudi Sela, the No. 7 seed’s one-handed backhand winners drew “oohs” and “ahs” from the crowd.
His smooth strokes aren’t the only thing crowds find attractive.
“We all have our special features,” Dimitrov said, smiling.
The tan, 6-foot-3 boyfriend of tennis darling Maria Sharapova has dark eyes and dark hair and is ready-made for stardom. With improved results, his ranking at a career-high No. 8, Dimitrov is a Grand Slam final away from becoming one of the new faces of tennis.
“All I’m focused on is playing my game,” Dimitrov said. “Everything else will take care of itself.”
Dimitrov ended his U.S. Open jinx after three straight years of losing in the first round, beating American Ryan Harrison on Wednesday.
At this time last year, the Bulgarian wasn’t in the top 25 and wasn’t as confident.
If there was surprise that Dimitrov was a Wimbledon semifinalist this year, it didn’t come from Dimitrov, who said he expected the strong performance. His best Grand Slam finish before that was making the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, and he was upset in the first round of the French Open.
Playing Djokovic, the world No. 1, in the Wimbledon semifinal, Dimitrov won the first set but then lost the next three, with the second and third sets going to tiebreakers. Afterward, Djokovic said he was playing a “future star.”
In his match against Sela, the crowd was behind the Israeli underdog, but with each stunning point Dimitrov won, he slowly won them over. He glides from one part of the court to another, a return rarely out of his reach. He’s aggressive in coming to the net, and against Sela, he won 21 of 29 net points.
Every time it seemed Sela hit a tricky shot at an angle beyond Dimitrov, the return came back even better — drawing gasps from the crowd. He got the nickname “Baby Federer” at 16 for a style of play similar to Roger Federer’s, and if both continue to advance in the tournament, they could play each other in the quarterfinal (Federer won his second-round match later Friday night).
“People enjoy seeing that kind of game,” Dimitrov said. “Part of me wants to play for them a little bit, but in the position I am in right now, I just really want to play good percentage tennis and win those matches. That’s the most important thing. Occasionally, if you get a shot and it can bring that out of the crowd, it’s always welcome.”
Sela said he thought he played well in the match, better than when he won in the first round, even if the score didn’t reflect it. Dimitrov was just too confident.
“I think that’s his strength, that he’s moving very good,” Sela said. “He’s not making any mistakes. Every time I was moving him around on the court, he never missed.”
Their match was the second of the day in Louis Armstrong Stadium, starting around 1 p.m. Wanting to get out of the sun, Dimitrov wasted little time beating Sela. Afterward, he was patient signing autographs, grown women mixed in with the crowd of children getting him to sign the back of a phone or a giant tennis ball.
Rightly or wrongly, beauty often has boosted the popularity of women’s tennis players. Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard became tennis’s sweetheart with her long blonde hair and svelte figure. Anna Kournikova was known more for her good looks than her play.
After winning his match, Dimitrov took off a sweaty wristband and slid on a sleek watch. Recently featured in Vogue magazine, styled and photographed like a model would be, Dimitrov’s well-groomed appearance is no accident. He came in for his post-match interviews more than two hours after his match was over, showered and changed. He regularly gets manicures and pedicures.
If he is the next face of men’s tennis, Dimitrov is more than willing to look the part.
“I’ve come out here as a different player,” Dimitrov said. “I’m keeping my eyes on the prize.”