(Updates with Haskovo mayor proposal)
SOFIA, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Grigor Dimitrov has been hailed as the new lord of tennis by his home fans and media after the Bulgarian won the biggest title of his career when he captured the season-ending ATP Finals in London on Sunday.
The 26-year-old made headlines across the Balkan country after overcoming some early nerves to beat fellow debutant David Goffin 7-5 4-6 6-3 in an epic final with millions of his countrymen glued to their television screens.
The thrilling two-and-a-half-hour contest was always guaranteed a huge audience in Dimitrov’s homeland, with the match shown live on three Bulgarian television channels, including state broadcaster BNT1, and streamed on several local websites.
“Dimitrov brought tears of happiness to thousands of Bulgarians at the O2 Arena and millions in front of TV screens,” sports website www.tennis24.bg wrote.
Dimitrov’s unbeaten run in London earned him a cool $2.5 million, with the 1,500 ranking points catapulting him to an impressive third place in the end-of-year rankings — behind only tennis greats Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
The three Maleeva sisters, Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena, who took turns to feature in the world’s top six in the 1980s and 1990s, made the women’s game successful in Bulgaria.
However, Orlin Stanoytchev was the highest-ranked Bulgarian male player after reaching world number 96 in 2000 before Dimitrov’s emergence on the tennis scene a decade ago.
Dimitrov, who received raucous support from flag-waving Bulgarian fans during his matches in London, has become hugely popular in the Black Sea country of 7.1 million people in recent years and is seen as an inspiration for future generations.
“Grigor is a successful role model,” national tennis centre manager Georgi Donchev said. “In the last two or three years, there has been a boom in the number of children taking up tennis.”
Dobri Belivanov, the mayor of Dimitrov’s home town Haskovo, said he would propose that courts in the southern town be named after the player.
Dimitrov, who was awarded honorary citizenship by Haskovo last year, is considering setting up a tennis academy in the town, which has a population of 76,000.
Soccer is the most popular sport in Bulgaria and the national team’s run to the 1994 World Cup semi-finals remains the most inspirational sporting event in the country’s history, triggering a euphoria that few believe will ever be repeated.
Bulgaria have slipped into decline since that impressive showing in the United States, failing to qualify for a string of major tournaments, and a number of fans have subsequently turned their attention to other sports. (Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by John O’Brien and Clare Fallon)