By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - When Grigor Dimitrov grasped the Queen's Club trophy after winning the Aegon Championships on Sunday a quick glance at the names engraved on its plinth might have given him goose bumps.
In edging past Spain's Feliciano Lopez in a gripping contest the 23-year-old Bulgarian, long-regarded as a future grand slam champion, etched his name alongside some of the greatest exponents of the grasscourt arts.
John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras all won the traditional Wimbledon warm-up tournament just a few miles away from the All England Club while of the current generation Lleyton Hewitt, Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray have all found the slick lawns to their liking.
While winning at Queen's Club is no guarantee of success at Wimbledon, form at the homely Victorian club next to Baron's Court Underground station has traditionally been a useful barometer for the year's third grand slam tournament.
It proved the perfect Wimbledon tune-up for McEnroe in 1981 and 1984, the blue touch paper for flame-haired teenager Becker to rampage to Wimbledon glory in 1985.
Sampras won at Queen's in 1995 and 1999 before serving and volleying his way to the Wimbledon title while Australian Hewitt did the double in 2002.
Nadal's famous de-throning of Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2008 was preceded by the title at Queen's while last year Murray triumphed there before ending his country's 77 year-wait for a men's singles champion at the All England Club.
World No.13 Dimitrov, who already has a Wimbledon title to his name, albeit in the boy's singles, seemed well aware of the significance of his 6-7(8) 7-6(1) 7-6(6) win over Lopez - his third title this year, all on different surfaces.
"We're about to find that out in a week," Dimitrov told reporters when asked if he could repeat Murray's double.
"It's always I think special to win that week. To me this tournament in particular has been that tournament I always wanted to win. I remember playing as a teenager here, and ever since I have dreamt about that moment.
"You can feel it in the spirit of the trophy itself. When you lift it, it means something.
"The only thing I can say is I'm going to be with a lot of positive vibes coming out to Wimbledon."
Few doubt that Dimitrov has all the weapons to win Wimbledon - a damaging first serve, the ability to attack off both wings, an ease around the net and ability to improvise.
On Sunday, in saving a match point against the left-handed Spaniard whose game looks tailor-made for grass, he also showed that the mental toughness that was occasionally questioned in the past is now part of his make-up.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that French Open champion Maria Sharapova, his girlfriend, is renowned as being one of the sport's most ferocious fighters.
"Of course I think having Maria on my side definitely adds up, and a tremendous champion like her, there is a lot to learn," Dimitrov said. "But it's still completely different areas in a way, women's tennis and men's tennis.
"But there is certainly a good amount that I have learned throughout so far."
After a few false dawns, Dimitrov began to really assert himself on the men's tour last year, although it was not until October that he finally claimed his first ATP title by beating David Ferrer in Stockholm.
This year he won on hard courts in Acapulco and clay in Bucharest and after claiming the Queen's title on Sunday he said he was now becoming accustomed to title matches, even if he acknowledges he still has big strides to take.
"For some reason I wasn't nervous at all today, which I was a bit scared of that because usually when I'm a little nervous I play some of my best tennis," he said.
"Of course I was focusing on winning the last point, but was all about competing and testing myself on the mental side, which was a little bit more important.
"I'm excited with the progress that I have had so far this year, but my goals are way too high.
"I'm getting to know myself even better. How I'm responding on different surfaces and sort of finding that right formula to be good on every surface."
Whatever his formula, it is working and the notion of Dimitrov becoming the latest member of that select list to win the Queen's-Wimbledon double is not so fanciful.
(Reporting by Tom Hayward; editing by Greg Stutchbury)
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