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Zverev, Dimitrov destined to make major statement this season

Reports that men's pro tennis has been suspended until world No. 1 Andy Murray and Australian Open champ Roger Federer return to action in Dubai at the end of February have been greatly exaggerated.

There's plenty of grunting and pommeling going on this month, and some of it may have serious repercussions when more people are paying attention. That's evident this particular February, as two Grand Slam contenders have exploited the notional dead zone following the first major of the season.

Alexander Zverev, the 19-year-old prodigy who's now in the top 20, won the second title of his young career at the ATP 250 in Montpellier, France. Zverev seems to be everyone's Next Big Thing, but expectations mean little until they're matched by production. In fact, all they do is create pressure.

Zverev had to be feeling pressed when Montpellier began. He was just 3-2 for the year, and that included a shocking at-home Davis Cup loss that capped tiny Belgium's upset of Germany.

"I'm very happy to win my first title of the year," Zverev told the press in Montpellier after his win, "It was a very tough tournament, only one straight-sets match in the whole tournament."

Zverev, a late-entry wild card, beat a pair of mercurial, veteran Frenchmen en route to the title -- No. 14 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and, in the final, No. 19 Richard Gasquet. It was a good way to get back on track.

Bonus result: Zverev now has a career-high ranking of No. 18.

Grigor Dimitrov's story is a little more complicated. Like Zverev, he was once hailed as a future star. They hung the name "Baby Fed" on him while he was still a teenager. Dimitrov, now 25, has been slow to mature and fully dedicate himself to the game. But he claims he's ready to make a strong push this year and backed it up with a quality tournament win in Brisbane and a terrific performance in the Australian Open.

In the semis of the first major, Dimitrov pushed resurgent Rafael Nadal to the brink of elimination in a riveting five-set spectacle.

Dimitrov is a bigger star than his results warrant, partly because of his charisma and dating history. But unlike many top players, especially those who did well Down Under, Dimitrov didn't take a winter vacation after the first major of the year. Despite winning Brisbane and lasting until the almost the final weekend in Melbourne, he flew home to play in his home championships in Sofia, Bulgaria.

It isn't always easy to navigate hometown-type pressures. Dimitrov also had the handy excuse of fatigue to fall back on if things began to go a little sideways -- as they did in his three-set opening match with Jerzy Janowicz. But Dimitrov hung in, eked it out and went on to win the event with a final-round upset of No. 2 seed David Goffin.

"This is my most prestigious title for sure, winning it at home is a tremendous success for me," said Dimitrov, who now owns six career championships.

Then last week, Dimitrov went straight to Rotterdam and reached the quarterfinals before falling to David Goffin.

Dimitrov claims he's in the best shape of his career.

Along with Zverev, these two are making the most of February, a month in which eight of the 11 tournaments are lowly ATP 250s and played in far-flung outposts like the mile-high city of Quito, Ecuador or the roughneck seaport town of Marseilles, France.

These small tournaments often produce terrific stories. How about much-loved, self-taught underdog Victor Estrella Burgos winning the title in Quito for the third straight year, fending off match points in two of his matches?

This year, though, February might do more than produce charming stories while we await the return of the stars. It may help shape the outsiders destined to beat them.