When Grigor Dimitrov arrived on to the court for his first round match at the Vienna tournament last week, the entire world let out a collective gasp. Or at least that's what you thought would be the case, considering how unrecognizable Dimitrov looked.
The Bulgarian has never had flowing locks of hair like Roger Federer or Alexander Zverev. But he has been frequently called the most handsome player on the ATP tour, even by such authorities on the subject as and . And his stylish, close-cropped hairstyle had a fair bit to do with that; it gave him a sort of impish charm that even Maria Sharapova found hard to resist.
But in Vienna, he emerged with a new, almost monk-like haircut. There was very little fibre left on his head, and there were even a few bare patches that suggested the onset of male pattern baldness. If you were the sort to attach a lot of importance to physical appearances, you might have been tempted to consider this as the final, irreversible sign that Dimitrov had reached his nadir.
That shallow little aspect " the burden of physical appearances " has been Dimitrov's curse all along. He's always scored high on the 'pretty' scale; to go with his widely-praised facial features, he's also had an aesthetic game that has thoroughly enamored the connoisseurs. Consequently, the expectations from him have generally been high.
It is the nature of us humans to want beauty to be rewarded with success.
For a brief period, there was success, and a lot of it. While Dimitrov's early years (save for that 2014 Wimbledon semifinal run) were a little lost in the wilderness, he seemed to have turned a corner at the start of last year.
2017 was a breakthrough season for Dimitrov in more ways than one. Not only did he win the season-ending ATP Finals and his maiden Masters 1000 title (at Cincinnati), he also showed the first real signs that he was ready to challenge the big boys on a regular basis. He and Rafael Nadal put together the most compelling rivalry of the year, starting with their epic Australian Open semi-final and ending with a string of close encounters in the fall.
Many attributed a large share of the credit for that to Dimitrov's new working relationship with Daniel Vallverdu. The former coach of Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych joined the Bulgarian's team in July 2016, and within months of that Dimitrov was looking like a different player.
He was hitting his normally troublesome backhand with greater abandon, and using his underrated net game to sharper effect. He was also serving a little better, ironing out the disastrous double faults that are usually associated with his game. Most importantly though, he was making the right decisions at the right times.
Prior to 2017, Dimitrov was frequently accused of faltering in the big moments. He had all the shots in the book, but somehow chose the worst possible shot when the stakes were the highest. Vallverdu tried to correct that by making him focus on the basics.
"It was basically about simplifying everything as much as possible, from my fitness to the on-court work to the off-court work," "Setting regular targets " short-, medium- and long-term " has helped to develop my confidence and consistency."
Vallverdu himself has gone on record about how he has tried to instill an equilibrium in Dimitrov's mind " not just on the court, but off it too.
"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," .
Dimitrov's newfound confidence and composure were still in evidence at the start of 2018, as he again made the Australian Open quarterfinals " on the back of a magnificently played fourth-round encounter against the serious version of Nick Kyrgios. The loss to Kyle Edmund was a bit surprising, but when Dimitrov reached the final in his next tournament " Rotterdam " it seemed he was still on the right track.
If only we had known that that was as good as it was going to get for the Bulgarian. It has been a year of disappointments and backward steps ever since, without a single final appearance to boast of " and only one semifinal. The listless first round losses to Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon and the US Open were particularly jarring; it was almost as though Dimitrov was feeling sorry for Wawrinka's post-injury struggles, and wanted to hand him a gift or two.
The question, of course, is what changed from last year. Did he randomly stop sticking to the basics? Was he getting too ahead of himself? Or was it just a case of the 'honeymoon period' having got over? The effects of a new coach have been known to wear off after a year or two, and Vallverdu's impact could well have been destined to be short-lived.
We do know that Dimitrov's unsound decision-making is back in full force. His recent losses in the fall " to Marin Cilic, Mikhail Kukushkin and Dusan Lajovic " have highlighted all the struggles of an unsure mind in painful detail. He has defended when he should have attacked, pulled the trigger when he needed to be patient, and double faulted when he could least afford it. In short, he has been the pre-2017 version of himself.
The new ascetic haircut has also made an appearance at exactly the same time that his star has dimmed to a half-hearted glimmer. Funnily enough though, we've seen something like this before in the tennis world. In the mid-90s, Boris Becker trimmed his famously blond mane to a severe buzzcut, at about the same time that his personal life started going up in flames. It was almost as though Becker was trying to atone for something by ridding himself of his worldly gifts.
What is Dimitrov trying to atone for? It's not like his on-court failures are worthy of atonement, or even the slightest bit of guilt. Winning is not an ethical ideal that everyone must necessarily strive for; it's just something that comes with the territory. Even if Dimitrov never won an ATP level match again, no one would ever question his integrity.
But this week in Paris has thrown up a new twist in the ever-intriguing Dimitrov Saga. The 27-year-old engaged the services of Andre Agassi at the event; the two were seen training together on the court, and Dimitrov was heard saying he couldn't think of a better guy to share thoughts with than the "amazing" Agassi.
Exactly why Agassi is the only one that Dimitrov can open to, is a little hard to fathom. Dimitrov has had his ups and downs, but he's never been quite the cynosure of eyes like Agassi was. He's also never had to deal with the debilitating side-effects " including a crippling lack of motivation " that come with substance abuse.
Moreover, Agassi doesn't have a great track record when it comes to coaching. His only high-profile assignment before this was with Novak Djokovic, which ended on a rather unsatisfactory note.
But you get the feeling that Dimitrov doesn't just need to toughen up mentally anymore. He has had help from Vallverdu (who is still his full-time coach) in that respect; he has been told repeatedly that "tennis is a lifestyle" and not just a sport.
What Agassi may be able to help with is even more basic than what Vallverdu has been working on. It is the very foundation of Dimitrov's career, and by extension his life. It is his game.
On the surface, it doesn't quite sound like a marriage made in heaven. Dimitrov is all flash and pomp on the court, while Agassi was all mechanical consistency. But counterintuitive as it sounds, incorporating a bit of Agassi's style into his game might be just what Dimitrov needs.
We all know the Bulgarian likes to put up a show on the court. We also know that Agassi liked to win on the court. Under Agassi, Dimitrov could learn how to put up a show and still win. Or just win " show or no show.
Hitting with depth instead of angle, getting the ball back from a defensive position instead of going for a winner, playing the percentages instead of trying to play on your terms all the time " these are all things that Agassi was an expert at, and which Dimitrov has never shown an inclination towards. It's about time he started showing that inclination.
The man is still young, and we've seen in recent times that it is never too late to turn a journeyman-like career into a multiple-Slam-winning one. Does Dimitrov have it in him to pull a Wawrinka and become the player we've all expected him to be right from the start? With Agassi at his side, there is reason to be optimistic.
"Hopefully, I can travel with Andre a bit more next year, and for sure we're going to try to spend a lot more time together in the upcoming weeks and months," Dimitrov said about his long-term plans with Agassi. That can only be good news if you're a Dimitrov fan.
Also, it is worth noting that Becker was not the only one in the 90s who got rid of his hair as he tried to get back to his best on the court. Agassi was the one who first pioneered the bald look, even if his reasons may have been a little different. And now his charge Dimitrov seems to be going down the same route.
That makes this association all the more apt, at least on the superficial level. In the future, Dimitrov may not be called the most handsome guy, or the player with the most handsome game. But aesthetics matter very little in the larger scheme of things, and if he can turn the loss of beauty into a consistent career, then it wouldn't really be a loss at all.
Hopefully, he will have Agassi to remind him of that day after day.