Rohit at Australian Open: Dimitrov must out-grow Baby Fed moniker
Not since Boris Becker was "Boom Boom" has tennis had a stylish nickname. FedEx... oh please. DelPo... it's more a Twitter handle. Djoker... come on. Does anyone outside Australia refer to Lleyton Hewitt as Rusty? Nope. Those old guys, they did it much better. Talk about Ken Rosewall, the great and tiny Australian, and he's always referred to as Muscles. Beautiful.
If you must have a nickname, it better be cool. Marvelous Marvin Hagler, as the boxer was known, now that was kind of cool. And anyway, who was going to tell him it wasn't? But then you couldn't enter a ring without a fancy monicker. Frazier was Smokin' Joe and Roberto Duran was the Hands Of Stone, though it sounds way cooler in Spanish.
Imagery is important for a nickname. The durable baseballer Lou Gehrig was beautifully named The Iron Horse while Harold Grange, an American football player of the 1920s-30s, was superbly titled the Galloping Ghost.
But some sobriquets you just don't want. Like "the next Pele" which is what apparently happened to Freddy Adu and everyone knows what happened there. That's not a fun tag, that's the grim weight of history. It's why the much-heralded Grigor Dimitrov, who won his fourth-round match today at the Australian Open, should audibly protest about his nickname till it is expunged from every memory.
Baby Fed? You're kidding, right? Hey, no one can be Fed, not even Roger these days. The Bulgarian Dimitrov is right-handed, he's got a single-handed backhand, he often moves on skates and he's apparently signed up by a management agency that Federer has begun. Past that, the resemblance is tough to find.
Dimitrov probably just wants to be himself. Doesn't want to be known as Maria's boyfriend. Doesn't want to be known as the "first Bulgarian" to do this and that. "He wants to be his own person," is what his new coach Roger Rasheed told Linda Pearce of The Age. It's why the Baby Fed nickname, on request, has been excised from the ATP Tour Guide.
Maybe it's working for Dimitrov because in just his fourth full year on tour he's in his first grand slam quarter-final, having despatched Roberto Bautista Agut 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. As reward for his efforts he's probably going to get Rafael Nadal.
The Spaniard will ruthlessly probe the Bulgarian's single-handed backhand as he has long done a Swiss one. Against Nadal, the single-handed swipe seems insufficient, yet unlike wooden rackets and serve-and-volley it is a part of tennis yet to enter tennis' dinosaur museum. Stan Wawrinka's one-hander feels like a slap, Richard Gasquet's has a sting and Tommy Robredo's resembles a painting.
Every era needs a single-handed advertisement to remain relevant. Pete Sampras -- did Pistol Pete ever catch on as a nickname? -- won 14 slams with it, Federer has used it for 17, and now says Mats Wilander, in a chat with a few media: "Dimitrov is going to be crucial for the one-handed backhand". At 22, if he morphs into a great player, it might stay alive.
Wilander, a two-handed bloke from the 1980s, believes it's coaches who too strongly influence choice. "We've got to start letting kids play the way they want to play, and not tell them they have to hit as many forehands as possible, and two hands is better."
Just to start with, any more painful cloning of players -- already tennis is all baseline bulldozing -- would send us into a coma. As Wilander adds: "If we try to teach everybody to play with two hands, that means we're trying to teach everybody to think the same way. That means I'm not coming to watch tennis any more."
Styles fit people, the one-hander fits a personality. Federer's instinct and artistry and whimsy might have been stifled by the two-hander. Just his slices, a library of them, arrive from one flexible hand on his racket handle. Maybe this is where Dimitrov finds at least a philosophical connection with Federer, a need to express himself in a way the double-hander would not allow.
Style is one thing, of course, resilience another. As Dimitrov polishes his game, he will also have to wait. As Wilander notes: "It's so mental at the top. Is he going to be able to survive the next three or four years of maybe not winning a major because of Djokovic and Nadal and Murray. And then when they're done is he fresh enough to then take the step in?"
Tennis will hope so. For by then Federer will be gone and we might just need a single-handed Grigor The Great.