Following in Federer's footsteps
Handling the hype is part of the job for any talented young tennis player but being labelled 'the new Roger Federer' and touted as the next big thing in the men's game means Grigor Dimitrov has more to deal with than most.
Why all the attention? Well, in a sport desperate for new blood to challenge the established order - the same four players began and ended the year at the top of the ATP rankings, and only three men other than Federer or Rafael Nadal have won a single Grand Slam since the start of 2005 - the 19-year-old Bulgarian is widely seen as potentially the next big star of a new generation of tennis talent.
Dimitrov's burgeoning reputation is down to his rapid rise from outside the top 350 to the fringes of the top 100 in the world over the last six months, and the clutch of Futures and Challenger events he won on the way to becoming the world's top-ranked male teenager at the end of 2010.
And the resemblance to Federer, who incidentally has been his idol since childhood, is easy to see too. On court, they share the same sweeping single-handed backhand, exciting attacking game and even a trademark bandana.
Off it, their professional careers were both launched by the same coach, Peter Lundgren, who says Dimitrov is the more talented. No pressure there then.
Dimitrov's playing style is reminiscent of his hero, and he dresses alike too
So, how does it feel to be seen as the successor to your hero? "There are worse things to be called!" Dimitrov, who is fluent in English and as articulate as he is amiable, told me last week from Dubai, where he was relaxing at the end of an eventful year.
"Of course it is nice to hear it, and all these other things, but there is only one reaction I can really give: I am the number 106 in the world, and Federer is the best tennis player alive. It is very hard for me to compare us in any other way.
"I loved watching Roger when I was growing up, and I still watch him when I can, no matter what, because you can learn so much. Of course there are some similarities with how we play, with my backhand and serve, but I never aimed for that, because my father taught me how to play tennis and everything came quite naturally to me.
"I've met Roger a few times but I have not really spoken to him properly yet, just to say things like 'how are you' or 'good luck' but nothing more. It is tough to get near to players like that, because I haven't been at many tournaments with him yet."
Dimitrov is pretty confident that will change in the next few months. He thinks tennis is "a simple game for intelligent people" and has set himself a clear target: "I believe I can be number one. That's my goal."
But he certainly isn't taking it for granted that he is destined for the top, because he has made that mistake before.
Those comparisons with the Swiss supremo first cropped up during Dimitrov's time as the junior world number one in 2008, after he collected the boys' titles at Wimbledon and the US Open at the age of 17.
That was expected to be the launchpad for an immediate assault on the big guns of men's Tour, especially after an impressive start to his professional career at the start of 2009 that saw him beat Tomas Berdych and take Nadal to three sets. But Dimitrov's progress soon faltered.
Looking back now, he knows why he initially found the transition from junior star to the main circuit so hard to make. "I had two great matches against Tomas and Rafa, and I thought everything was said and done to go and join the big guys," he explained. "But that is one of the tricky things about the game that you have to learn - how to play well over and over again, not just once or twice.
"It is completely different to being in a boy's tournament. You are up against men who know how to play you because they have been there before and they know every match situation. Of course you can beat a player once but you have to keep doing it, and it is a different kind of tennis too. The momentum of every match is different. It's not until you start playing them that you understand."
The expectation that accompanied his junior accomplishments increased the pressure on Dimitrov too, but he admits his attitude wasn't all it could have been.
"I got a bit lackadaisical," he said. "I didn't ease off but I kind of took a breath, which is the worst thing you can do. You have to do the opposite when you make that step up; work harder and breathe less. I let myself down a bit."
Dimitrov was a junior Wimbledon champion
A few niggling injuries added to Dimitrov's frustration and, with his ranking stuck in the mid 300s, it appeared his promising career might be drifting. As he found out, potential does not win you many prizes in the cruel world of the ATP Tour - for every Federer or Stefan Edberg, who collected men's Grand Slams to go with their junior titles, there is a Martin Lee - the Briton who topped the boys' rankings in the mid 1990s but did not get above number 94 as a man.
So, what changed for Dimitrov to spark the dramatic upturn in his fortunes? Firstly, it was his coach. Peter McNamara replaced Lundgren in June, and sparked a remarkable run that saw 49 wins and only 13 defeats in the remainder of the year.
Dimitrov says he learned a lot from Lundgren and leaving him was not an easy decision, but it has certainly paid off. He is reluctant to discuss exactly what McNamara has got him doing differently but hinted it is his mental approach where the improvements have been made.
"He definitely hasn't tried to alter my game," Dimitrov laughs. "That was not the main issue! We have tried to work on my consistency and the details that shape the whole picture. We have our way of working, but we have to keep that private, right? We have had such a great start and we are going to carry on in the same way."
McNamara might be the man who has got Dimitrov focused and firing on all cylinders but it is still his father, Dimitar, a tennis coach back in Bulgaria, who he consults if he has a problem with any of his shots.
"I always call my dad when I need him, whether it is during a tournament or other times when I need some details regarding my technique because he was the one who showed me everything," Dimitrov added.
"I was three when I picked up a racquet properly for the first time and five when I started playing every day. That became my work, my life, my love."
He also continues to count on the Patrick Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Paris for support. Dimitrov moved there when he was 16, after two years in Barcelona working with Andy Murray's old coach Pato Alvarez, who remains a big influence too.
"I had to grow up very quickly when I went to Spain at 14," Dimitrov stated. "It is tough when you are living on your own and learning everything yourself. But it was good for me, actually - I figured a lot of things out myself and made my own decisions. I got through a lot of difficult times."
The last six months haven't been completely plain sailing either. Dimitrov had an off-court altercation with umpire Daniel Infanger in Helsinki at the end of November after losing to Ricardo Berankis in the semi-finals of his last tournament of 2010, landing himself a 2,000 euro fine and the threat of a suspension.
A clearly contrite Dimitrov did not try to make any excuses for his behaviour when I brought the incident up. "I made a mistake and I am learning from it," he said. "I have apologised to all the people - I have written to everyone involved, admitting I made a mistake and it won't happen again. Now I have moved on and I am looking forward to 2011."
It promises to be an exciting year. Dimitrov says his first goal for the next 12 months is staying injury free but the plan for the man nicknamed 'G-Force' is to maintain the recent momentum he has built up as he tests himself at a higher level.
From January, he will start playing on the ATP World Tour, a big step up from those Challenger events he has been cleaning up at, and Grand Slams are beckoning too - his current ranking is good enough to earn him direct entry into the Australian Open at the end of that month.
It is all part of the learning curve as far as Dimitrov is concerned, and he is looking forward to the next stage of his career. "Progress comes from playing more of those bigger tournaments, and maturing on court," he explained. "I might need a few years to figure things out but you learn from all the good players you are watching around you too - it will be a very interesting time."