Could Dimitrov or Zverev be the new Wizard of Oz?
GRIGOR DIMITROV and Alexander Zverev, two men who made perhaps the biggest steps forward in 2017, believe they are ready to contend for the title at the Australian Open, which begins in Melbourne tomorrow.
Dimitrov starts the year ranked third, having won his biggest title in November when he triumphed at the ATP Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in London.
Germany’s Zverev won five titles in 2017, including two Masters 1000 titles, finishing the year just behind Dimitrov as the world number four.
Besides world number one Rafael Nadal and defending champion Roger Federer, Dimitrov and Zverev are considered genuine title threats.
However, Bulgarian Dimitrov, a semi-finalist in Melbourne 12 months ago, is trying not to get ahead of himself. “Until it’s done, I don’t want to have any (sixth) sense, to be honest,” he said in Melbourne yesterday.
“Obviously I’ve achieved certain things that I’ve always wanted to. I always wanted to be a top-five player. I did it. I wanted to win a Masters 1000 event and I did it. I haven’t dreamt that much about winning at the O2, but I did it.”
Dimitrov admitted it was a different feeling to see himself as the third seed in a Grand Slam event, but that the hard work was still to be done.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “Of course, I’m pretty happy and excited with what I have achieved. Obviously, I have high expectations of myself. I want to do the best that I can.”
Zverev emerged from the pack in 2017 with his five titles, including Masters 1000 victories at Rome and Montreal.
The only thing lacking from the German’s list of honours is success at the Grand Slams, having only made it to the last 16 just once, at Wimbledon last summer.
“I think improving the Grand Slam performances is one thing I need,” he said.
“The furthest I’ve got was to the fourth round of Wimbledon. A lot of times not because I played bad, but because I played very good opponents.
“I lost to Nadal here. I lost to (Milos) Raonic in Wimbledon. Every time in five sets. That’s nothing to worry about too much. But obviously that’s one goal for me this year.”
Zverev, who is now coached by former world number one Juan Carlos Ferrero, said he had no doubts about his ability. “I’ve showed on multiple occasions over the year that I can play and beat the best guys in the world,” he said.
“I mean, I’m number four in the world for a reason. Not trying to sound cocky or anything, but I’ve always said that I’ve always been working hard physically, I’m always trying to improve the performance at the grand slams. Hopefully I can do so this week.”
Simona Halep enters the Australian Open with the world number one ranking and a familiar set of doubts over her ability to win a Grand Slam.
With Serena Williams on maternity leave for most of 2017, the 26-year-old Halep had her best chance for a breakthrough at the majors but ended the year empty-handed again, with a second French Open final defeat after another near miss in 2014.
The number one ranking was some consolation after years battling at the top of the game, but Halep will be mindful of the many women before her who have ended up as caretakers at the top during Williams’s absences from the tour.
A few of them, like second seed Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic, held and lost the ranking without ever winning one of the four major trophies.
“I have one more goal: to win a grand slam,” the Romanian 26-year-old said yesterday. “But now I’m focusing on my game. I really want to get better and to improve in what I had less good.”
Getting better at Melbourne Park would just be a matter of reaching the second round. She was the first seed dumped out of last year’s tournament, losing in straight sets to unfancied American Shelby Rogers.
It was the second successive year of being knocked out at the first hurdle, reinforcing a reputation of mental fragility at the biggest tournaments.
As top seed, expectations will be higher this time round and the attention greater, which makes her split with apparel sponsor Adidas all the more mystifying.
She will compete at Melbourne Park without a brand after her management were unable to agree to terms on an extension with Adidas.
“Yeah, my people are working for me on this stuff,” she said. “I have no contract now. I’m still with no brand clothes.”
In a thoroughly modern sourcing arrangement, Halep found a Chinese company on the Internet to make her an outfit and they produced one within 24 hours after she sent them a picture of what she wanted.
She wore the red dress to victory at this month’s Shenzhen Open and will wear it again at Melbourne Park.
But the no-nonsense Romanian dismissed a suggestion that she might start her own clothing line like Serena’s older sister Venus Williams. “No. I’m not that type of person,” she said. – Reuters
GROWING REPUTATIONS: Grigor Dimitrov, left, and Alexander Zverev