Around the latter half of the afternoon of July 4, the streets of Sofia and most towns and villages in Bulgaria were somewhat quieter than usual.
A special live broadcast, hastily-arranged, was on, and thankfully for once it did not involve the latest blatherings at a news conference by politicians emerging from yet-another make-or-break episode in the country’s continuing melodrama. The hopes of the nation were pinned not on hearing when the government would resign, but how Grigor Dimitrov would do at Wimbledon against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic.
While many international media reports are wholly wrong in painting Bulgaria as an impoverished hellhole, it is also true that there has been little to cheer Bulgarians just lately. And conversely, few Bulgarians to cheer.
Leaving politics and leaden economic indicators aside (thank you, I can hear the cheering), Dimitrov is among the few sporting heroes of high achievement of late. It is 20 years since Bulgaria’s footballers scraped the stratosphere in the World Cup, and much more recently, only a few have generated much excitement – Vesselin Topalov (FIDE World Chess Champion 2005), Koubrat Pulev (former European heavyweight champion), Stanka Zlateva (silvers in wrestling at the Olympics, gold in European championships). Leave aside Dimitar Berbatov; opinions are divided, but mainly because of divided loyalties in Bulgaria regarding certain English football teams.
Dimitrov – “Grisho”, long since, in the universe of Bulgarian headline writers and sportscasters – has brought that “may we dare to hope?” sentiment back to Bulgarian popular culture.
Perhaps this stretched the emotions even tauter last Friday in that grim Balkan duel on the green grass of Wimbledon, as the exchanges lengthened and lengthened until finally Djokovic won.
But that is to run ahead of ourselves. Hope and downright jollity came before then, when the Bulgarian vanquished Andy Murray. Bulgarians did not miss the chance of some acerbic wit, volleying back at the knuckle-dragging sections of the British press that for months had sought to demonise Bulgarians who supposedly were about to deluge the UK labour market.
“Bulgarians steal our jobs,” ran the captions superimposed over pictures of Dimitrov after he had trounced Murray.
If Facebook is something of a measure of a pulse of a nation, the Dimitrov victories and achievements quickened the pace of status updates. Many read, simply, “Grisho!”
Bulgarians were phlegmatic in accepting Dimitrov’s defeat at the hands of Djokovic, apparently proud that their compatriot had come so far – and that the upward arc seemed to be continuing. Against the bleakness of the political scene, with a government and parliament whose ratings have scraped the brittle, worn-out concrete of the basement, there was the fillip of Dimitrov’s achievement, as July 8 brought confirmation that he was the first Bulgarian in the top 10 of the ATP rankings, in at number nine.
Nor is anyone in that territory bounded by the Black Sea, the Danube and other Balkan borders likely to begrudge the Haskovo-born 23-year-old his place as the highest-ever earning Bulgarian tennis player.
There is a sense that the Grigor Dimitrov story is just beginning (“Grigor Dimitrov is now travelling first class on the tennis express,” enthused public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio).
Ahead lies this year’s US Open, the final Grand Slam event of the year, and if Dimitrov makes it into the top eight for the year, he will be back in London in November for the ATP World Tour Finals.
There may be a few more quiet afternoons in the streets and noisy occasions in the sitting rooms and bars of Bulgaria ahead. Can anyone dare to hope that one day there will be cars in the streets of Sofia, with hooting and flag-waving, and more children pressing their parents for tennis lessons?
Politicians, whose only sports appear to be kicking over each other’s sandcastles and blowing raspberries, please note.
(Dimitrov with his first ATP Tour trophy, in Stockholm in October 2013. Photo: www.stockholmopen.se)