March 11, 2014 by Parveer Mann
As Indian Wells enters its second week, many of the more interesting potential matchups have gone awry. We may not get a Murray/Nadal or Federer/Nadal matchup later this week but for now we are assured of at least one tantalizing pairing: Grigor Dimitrov vs. Ernests Gulbis. These two exciting young players faceoff in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open (already their third meeting in 2014) and in the process continue to lay the groundwork for a potentially promising rivalry.
Opposing styles, Intriguing matchup
If you believe Federer and Nadal is the gold standard of modern tennis rivalries like I do, you understand that it was built on both players’ differences. For every elegant one-handed backhand struck by Federer, you have the violent two-handed backhand that Nadal uses when he plays. This contrast in style allowed fans and pundits alike to pick a favourite and pick out weaknesses in the other. I’m not appointing Gulbis/Dimitrov as the next Nadal/Federer but their distinct styles and personalities make them an intriguing option for a future rivalry.
With Grigor Dimitrov, you have the technically superior player who has the skills and looks to be tennis’ next superstar. Often compared to Federer as a junior, Dimitrov’s results in 2014 have convinced many that there early praise was warranted. Add in the fact he’s dating Maria Sharapova and Dimitrov is well positioned to be a popular figure among tennis fans.
With Ernests Gulbis, you not only have a big server but one of the more opinionated players on tour. Despite his modest success before 2014, Gulbis was never short on opinions that were not particularly common in the tennis world. Here’s a few of those statements:
On his fellow competitors: “I was really getting pissed to see who’s in the Top 100. There are some guys who I don’t know who they are. Some guys, I’m sorry, with respect, they can’t play tennis. I don’t know how they got into the Top 100. I think I’m much better than them. It’s a motivation.”
On the city of Rotterdam: “I like that the marijuana here is legal. I’m for that. Unfortunately, tennis players cannot do that. We get checked every week. But I like the way of thinking.”
On his drop from the top 100: “You know, I used to say that it’s really tough to get out of the top 100, you know? So I proved to everybody that it’s not so tough, it’s pretty easy.”
On Novak Djokovic: “I swear there is more bitchiness in men’s tennis than women’s. I don’t like Djokovic that much. We know each other since I’m 12. He was a normal guy then, but since his first big success he changed, his eyes changed.” – Sample quotes extracted from givemesport.com
His colourful life and personality has made him a media darling and this year his tennis has been on par to his off-court persona. With victories over Del Potro and Tsonga, he has transitioned his power game to be more tactical and efficient. A move that makes him more adaptive to the rigors needed to constantly beat elite competition.
Not only do Dimitrov and Gulbis have all the elements of a great rivalry on paper, so far they’ve shown it on-court. Both career meetings have happened in the first two months of the 2014 season and both occurred with each playing at a high level. In Rotterdam, Gulbis prevailed in two tight sets on his way to an impressive semifinal run. However, the more memorable meeting was the Acapulco QF that saw both players pushed to the limit for over two and a half hours with Dimitrov ultimately winning in three.
It was one of those exhilarating matches that featured great shot-making and displays of endurance that you feel bad for whoever loses. Not too shabby a reaction for two guys who are only now entering their primes. I don’t know what will happen with certainty in their upcoming third round clash (I’ll pick Dimitrov because he’s far more consistent) but I can only wish that this new found rivalry continues to be one of the more pleasant surprises of 2014.