A Deep Dive: Five Reasons Why The Calls To Change Davis Cup Are Generally Bogus
We are the Davis Cup Preservation Society / God save two man teams, home courts and partiality / We are the Five Set Match Appreciation Society / God save tennis courts in all their different varieties
Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways, for me and for you. / What more can we do?……..
(with sincere apologies to Ray Davies. God Save The Kinks)
Like all sports, tennis has a bible of stock phrases uttered and memorized over the years by coaches and fans alike. “Keep your eye on the ball.” “You’re only as good as your second serve.” It’s not a break until you hold.”
It appears a new one’s been added: “We need to fix Davis Cup.”
Argentina’s historic 2016 Davis Cup triumph has done little to dampen critics of the event; one could argue that the Argies’ loss in the 2017 first round furthered the campaign for change. Does Davis Cup needs to be fixed? And why?
My answer is no. Mostly. Before continuing, however, it’s cards on the table time: I am old enough to remember the Challenge Round, and am a huge fan of Davis Cup. Advertisers swear millenials need snappy, short entertainment fixes, but I’m not one of them.1 I’m firmly convinced that not changing Davis Cup in any major way is a position that can be defended, and should be.
In no particular order here are 5 of the top items bruited about as reasons for change or as solutions to supposed problems, and my replies:
- Eliminate 5 set matches
- Play each tie over 2 days and not 3
- Standardize the court surface across the competition
- Change the format such that teams gather in one, pre-determined site that might well not be home to any of the teams in the finals or, alternatively the semi-finals, if the last 4 teams are brought together for the semis
- Davis Cup is not television friendly
Eliminate Five set matches: This has long been discussed across the tennis spectrum. Davis Cup is now one of only five annual tennis events with 5 set matches, the others being the Big Four Grand Slam titles.
Yes, a best of 5 match has the potential to last a long time. That is not guaranteed to happen, however. Of the 483 2016 Grand Slam men’s matches played to completion, all of which were best of 5, less than half went beyond 3 sets.
Tennis is an endurance sport. Or was. True, there’s a physicality to the modern game that wasn’t so prevalent 40 years ago, but Ivan Lendl and Thomas Muster were ready to go 5, on clay (and did), and tennis styles don’t come more physical than theirs. Best of three set matches against David Ferrer aren’t easy, but why should tennis be made easier? Doesn’t that take away an edge that some players have over others, their superior fitness?
A sloppy 5 set match that goes the distance isn’t compelling, we know that; you can find yourself thinking, “Okay, get it over and move on the next match.” Discontinue 5 setters, however, and we lose the amazing, incredible ebb and flow of truly epic contests. If you’ve watched an amazing 5 set match you know it’s as exciting a sporting event as any; Federer vs Cilic/Wimbledon 2016, Juan Martin del Potro’s maybe-the-greatest-comeback-ever2 over Dominic Thiem at the 2017 US Open or, more to the point, del Potro’s mammoth 5 set victory over Andy Murray in the 2016 Davis Cup semi-final.
Two or three years ago tennis was said to have become so physical it was impossible for players to avoid injury. The game has to be changed! Games have to go to no-ad and sets reduced to best of five. Or three!
Except now we’re all talking about the success of oldsters on both tours. Forget including Federer or Nadal in that discussion, they’re clearly aliens, but no one’s ever said that about 44 year old Daniel Nestor. Candadian, yes. But alien? No. Then there’s Feliciano Lopez, Venus and Serena both, Mariana Lucic-Baroni, and a slew of veritable kids getting ready to pass from their twenties to their thirties. Evidently players aren’t getting beaten up so badly by the strain of playing that careers are being ended left and right.
(Yes, without 5 set matches commentators would not be able to quote Boris Becker [yet again] about the 5th set not being about tennis, but nerves. You win some, you lose some.)
I’ve made my case; remind me, please, why Davis Cup has to go to best of three?
Play each tie over 2 days and not 3: Points in favor of this: a) easier scheduling of venues, b) minimally easier scheduling for players, c) it’s easier for television (more on this in #5).
Points against: a) one day’s fewer tickets to sell and therefore less revenue for tennis federations around the globe, b) less opportunity for surprise substitutions, and most importantly, c) this makes two man teams impossible. No team of two could possibly play 2 singles of any length plus a doubles on day one, and then the reverse singles on the following day.
Do we really want to deny the sport a chance to witness the over-the-top commitment of two man teams? Ivan Ljubicic/Mario Ancic 2005 Davis Cup run to the title, or Laver/Newcombe’s 1973 Cup win?
Allow me a (c)2 on this: if he’d had to play on consecutive days, could Steve Darcis have managed his astounding performance of the February 2017 ties when, as the 58th ranked player, he beat the world’s number 19 and 22? I think not.
I ask further for a (c)3: some nations might not be able to field a 3 man team, period. What do they do?
One of the greatest things about Davis Cup is how frequently the betting lines are worthless. Time and again, from World Group to Group III, lesser players, inspired by hearing the score called by their country’s name instead of their own, rise to heights with victories over their betters they’d never achieve on tour. Two day ties will make that even more impossible to do. We’ll be the poorer for it.
Standardize the court surface across the competition: It’s not hard to understand why, as an example, Spain doesn’t want to play Australia on grass, or the converse. The fact remains that many countries have court types that predominate in their local tennis world, and their players have naturally adapted a playing style suitable to that surface. A worldwide competition is not well-served by disenfranchising participants with rules that handicap them from the get-go.
Besides, homogenization of court surfaces leads to homogenization of playing styles; this is not a plus. It’s generally conceded that the best chance of seeing a fine match is when the combatants’ playing styles are different from each other. Contrast makes for a more interesting push/pull.
Change the format such that teams gather in one, pre-determined site that might well not be home to any of the teams in the finals or, alternatively, semi-finals if the last 4 teams are brought together for the semis: Versions of this include more than 4 teams, based on a round robin format that leads into a knock-out semi-final structure. Other suggestions are based on getting only the 4 semi-finalists in one location.
Naturally it would be easier to book and promote a venue well in advance for an event like that if where it took place no longer required a connection to any of the countries involved; Buenos Aires, for example, could be booked before the year’s competition began knowing that whichever 4 countries made the semis would go there. National associations currently have to find viable locations on relatively short notice; no one gets more than 4 or 5 months to ink a contract for a tennis site that has either dependable weather or a large enough indoor facility, and which is otherwise not rented out. Fans could book travel to the event well in advance, too, since they’d know where it was to be held irrespective of who makes the semi.
This is far more difficult to pull off successfully than it first appears.
It’s a big question if tennis fans would commit to such a scheme without knowing if teams or players they adore would be in the semis or finals. This is especially true of a competition based on nationality. How many Brits would buy tickets to Argentina at the end of the year (in our example) if they had no idea who’d be playing? I’m not sure many Brits would commit to going to Buenos Aires knowing that Team GB and Andy Murray might not be involved, with Murray instead on his couch watching tv and drinking Irn Bru. Selling more tickets under this plan is well short of being guaranteed.
Let’s point out, too, that no one’s yet said where in the ATP calendar they’re going to stick a new time commitment for Davis Cup. Yes, the plan frees up some time on the calendar (if only for the last 4 teams), but players will have to arrive to practice and acclimate before the first matches, adding a minimum of another 2 days. This plan calls for 6 days of competition plus one of rest. Add the 2 days for practice, etc., and it requires the teams in the semis to set aside least 9 days.
It’s unquestionably hard to fit Davis Cup ties into the ATP calendar. As long as the pro season continues to begin in January and end in November – a topic worthy of another discussion entirely – Davis Cup matches will never be convenient for everybody, every time.
Nothing is perfect, including Davis Cup, but the idea that the ITF is responding to players’ complaints, and only players’ complaints, is not accurate:
“I can tell you the players do not want to do that.” – Jamie Murray, ATP Player Council member, when asked about plans for the final to be at a neutral site.
A neutral site for the finals, or semi-finals, is far from being problem free.
Davis Cup is not television friendly: Now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. Of those looking to modernize (sic) Davis Cup, there is one motivating force that comes through repeatedly: television, and its advertising revenue.
Tennis is a niche player in the world of sports marketing, like it or not. Compared to football, American football, basketball, baseball, the North American hockey league (NHL), and of course golf, tennis is small potatoes. As a whole tennis doesn’t come close to generating the advertising revenue of the other, more omnipresent sports.
It’s not a matter of participation; fans of team sports are not playing those other sports to any significant degree. American football amongst a bunch of 47 year olds? Doesn’t happen enough to rate a mention. Golf can boast of some 12 million participants worldwide2 (2015), but tennis can lay claim to 75 million participants around the world (2007). Tennis may lag in the advertising revenue department compared to other sports, but it’s not because there are fewer people playing tennis than those revenue-rich sports.
Last week, North Carolina won the NCAA tournament. Baseball season opened. Tiger Woods withdrew from the Masters. And—far and away—the big story was Tony Romo’s retirement and move to CBS Sports. For all the slings and arrows football absorbs, man, the NFL is still King. – Jon Wertheim, of Sports Illustrated and Tennis Channel, from his online Mailbag column of April 12:
TV hates nothing so much as topics it cannot broadcast in simplistic terms, and the unique nature of tennis’ scoring – plus no time limit on the length of matches – means tv producers live in fear that casual fans will be turned off by a scoring system then don’t understand, or a long, hard fought match.
“Sure, hardcore tennis fans will stick around, watching commercials and the advertising banners around a court,” they’ll say, “But modern television is all about holding eyeballs, keeping them excited so they don’t get bored and click the remote, looking for another adrenalin rush while our advertisers are ignored…..”
Similarly, they maintain that the Cup’s format works against efforts to build excitement; it’s a multi-nation tournament played out over the course of an entire year. Each tie is a three day affair – a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – with further complications of multiple zones and tiered competition across the globe. “Who can keep track of the bloody thing?”, they cry. “No one’s played Davis Cup for months.”
Much of that is true, at least the facts of how the competition works. But there is a lot that these complaints ignore:
• Every year, on the first weekend of Davis Cup, the 16 teams in the highest tier, the World Group, play an initial knockout round. It’s near impossible to find accurate attendance records (I tried), but Canada’s recent tie set a record for Davis Cup attendance with 5000 spectators each day so it’s safe to figure that at each tie there are 3800 attendees each day. That’s 91,200 tickets sold, worldwide, over 3 days.
Compare that to the record for one day attendance at the US Open: 65,797. If the ITF and ATP want exposure for live tennis, especially in places where there isn’t a pro tournament, they can’t ignore Davis Cup’s results in this regard.
• That’s just the World Group. Add in the lower tier Group I and Group II ties (a total of another 50 teams, or 25 ties played), use 750 spectators for each day’s matches, and you have another 56,250 seats filled without including the tiers below those. (For the entire Davis Cup structure see this page at daviscup.com)
Yes, tennis is a niche sport, but we’ve just tallied a minimum of 147,450 folks watching live tennis over 3 days for just the first Cup weekend of the year, not counting television or online streaming viewers,. That may be niche, but it’s not shabby.
• These matches’ revenues add mightily to national tennis association’s finances, especially in countries were there is little grass roots tennis infrastructure. Many tennis associations claim they can’t survive with that income, and it’s easy to believe them.
• Similar to competing at the Olympics, players tell of how different it is to have the score called out by country and not the athlete’s name. “Ad in, United States,” lends a meaning to Davis Cup that affects every player. Many pros have their greatest moments in Davis Cup competition, or their worst.
We feel for players who come up short, but are amazed by how often rank-and-file players punch far above their weight class for one day, one match. Sometimes they make a weekend of it: Last February, 58th ranked Steve Darcis came through huge for the Belgian team, defeating Germany’s 29th ranked Philipp Kohlschrieber and the 19 year-old phenom, 22nd ranked Alexander Zverev.4 It’s a safe bet Belgian news carried that story far beyond the dedicated Belgian tennis fans. And the Belgian news media were able to follow it up with Darcis’ exploits in April when the he beat Italy’s 37th ranked Paolo Lorenzi in Friday’s rubber. Even more emphatically, Andy Murray won both his singles and paired with his brother for the doubles win to clinch the Davis Cup in 2015.
Tennis should come to grips with the fact that it’s never going to challenge the truly major sports for tv time and advertising dollars. There’s little to suggest otherwise, however much the ITF, ATP, and WTA wish things were different. The numbers above illustrate that enough fans buy tickets to make us feel perfectly fine about tennis’ not being perfect for television.
As it is tennis fans get antsy with the pauses caused by medical time outs, bathroom breaks, and toweling off after one-shot points. Will tennis improve if tv gets to drive the decisions about how the sport is played? I think not.
As I said earlier, Davis Cup is not perfect. The changes the ITF Board of Directors presented to the Davis Cup Annual General Meeting (AMG) were not all accepted at the August 4th meeting. What did get a green light was:
- Davis and Fed Cup champions of one year will get their choice of home or away for the first match of the following year.
- Match court availability and practice court requirements will be lowered to reduce hosting costs for national associations, and
- Davis Cup pre-tie commitments for players will be reduced to a single function combining the draw, post-draw press.
Best of 5 sets remains the format, as does the 3 day schedule.
There’s room to change Davis Cup and make it better, which is to say make it more popular among players and the public.
- Final set tiebreakers, perhaps at 7/7? Sure.
- Figure out a way to free up players from complete dead rubbers without burning ticket holders? Why not?
- Reinstitute the Challenge Round so any year’s champions get to revel in their win for more than a few months? Of course, or maybe even find a way to give them a bye in the first round or two.
- Play it as a bi-annual event? It’d break my heart, but as a compromise it might satisfy the calls for change and increase Davis Cup’s profile.
- Tweak the ATP calendar so there’s a proper off-season? Now just hold on there…..
The fact is that, on the whole Davis Cup is pretty Fabulous, and I don’t use the F word often. Consider:
- In the past 3 years there have been 3 different Davis Cup championship teams, 2 of whom have been first time winners.
- The largest crowd in Cup history was recorded in one of those finals (Switzerland vs France, Lille, France 2014).
- 3 of the next 4 largest Davis Cup crowds have happened in the last 10 years.
- The number of nations competing is close to tying the all time record of 139 countries in 2001 (128 in 2016).
- During that 2014 tie in Lille, 14 million fans watched on tv, including a high of 3 million during the doubles (!). As Andy Murray played for the Cup in the 2015 final versus Belgium, BBC1’s coverage alone averaged 3 million viewers, a 22.9% share, and amazingly had an audience peak of 5 million at one point.
- An estimated 4000 Argentine Davis Cup fans attended last year’s final round tie, away!, versus Croatia.
I say that’s a description of a sporting event that takes in just about the whole world and posts strong numbers doing so.
There’s room for tennis to draw more people to the sport, and I’ve written about it elsewhere. In the end, however, broken is as broken does. The numbers simply don’t make a case for Davis Cup’s being broken.
As sports drama it’s unmatched if you like tennis, and that’ s the rub. Will a bigger event, more like the major sports’ structures, bring fans who don’t already love tennis to buy tickets? I seriously question that, especially without some empirical evidence. Will more existing tennis fans commit to travel to otherwise uninvolved cities to watch teams that aren’t theirs? Or, perhaps more to the point, will these changes get more people to sit down in front of their televisions?
The desire to change Davis Cup has more to do with jealousy over what other sports are, and what tennis is fundamentally not, than they do with questions about why Davis Cup doesn’t work as it is. Is Dwight Davis’ creation improve-able? Yes. Definitely. Exploring ways to increase Davis Cup attendance and visibility should be encouraged. As we’ve seen above, though, tennis has a special jewel in Davis Cup. We should be careful to protect all that makes it successful on its own terms, great and unique on the world’s sporting stage. At the risk of repeating myself: broken is as broken does. Davis Cup isn’t broken, far from it, but if we break it with changes there’ll be no going back.
There’s nothing like Davis Cup®.
This weekend, 15-17 September, the Davis Cup semi finals are being played: Belgium vs Australia, in Brussels, Belgium, and France vs Serbia, in Lille, France. You can follow the box scores and news at daviscup.com where you can also find live streaming or, without irony, on television depending on your local access.
Big tips of the hat to The Andrews; Andrew Burton (@burtonad) for pointing me to http://www.tennis-data.co.uk/alldata.php , where I mined the 5 set match data, and to Andrew Friedman (@toquelandandrew) for his invaluable Edward Bulwer-Lytton assistance.
1 Apologies to millennials, who I personally am not convinced need to be constantly mesmerized by ever-changing stimuli. It’s cited here as a common belief, it’s just not mine
2 Per Darren Cahill
3 If the embedded link has been problematic for you – it has been for me – copy and paste this link in a browser if you wish to see the source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/darrenheitner/2015/04/04/the-state-of-the-golf-industry-in-2015/#267176721871
4 This was Zverev’s ranking at the time.
Novak Djokovic’s Moment Too Big For Tsitsipas
Perhaps, it was too much for Stefanos Tsitsipas to think about achieving in one day. That’s beating Novak Djokovic and winning his own initial Grand Slam title, not even to think about the bonus part of the package — becoming the No. 1 player in the world.
At any rate, it obviously wasn’t meant to be for Tsitsipas to derail Djokovic.
Djokovic accomplished it all in one neat package. Say hello to the player many tennis experts are now calling the greatest player ever. Of course, that’s a little premature due to the fact Rafa Nadal was all alone with 22 Grand Slam titles before Djokovic matched the total on Sunday by winning the Australian Open’s men’s singles title.
FORGET THE GOAT TALK
Then, there’s the great Roger Federer, in reality, possibly the greatest player who ever lived.
So, forget GOAT. It doesn’t matter, whether Nadal or Djokovic wins another Grand Slam title.
Poor Federer. He’s probably home with his children laughing about all of this.
And Rod Laver? Of course, Laver was on hand to watch Djokovic’s superhuman effort.
Back to reality. The moment.
Djokovic lived there Sunday night.
THE MOMENT WAS TOO MUCH FOR TSITSIPAS
Tsitsipas wasn’t ready for the challenge. Djokovic certainly was.
It’s as simple as that.
Novak played great. Tsitsipas didn’t give himself a chance to win.
Djokovic stayed in the moment. Tsitsipas allowed the situation to take over his game and apparently his mind.
Tsitsipas must have been back home in Greece where he would be crowned if he could be No. 1 in the world and win a Grand Slam.
NEAR-PERFECT NOVAK A LEGEND
Tsitsipas had his chances, even though he was down 4-1 in the first set before you could blink an eye.
He actually was two points from winning the second set in regulation, then quickly fell behind, 4-1, in the tiebreaker.
Tsitsipas took the third set to another tiebreaker, but lost the first five points and then lost the match, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5).
He never seemed to be keyed into the match, repeatedly miss-hitting key shots, even to open courts.
Meanwhile, Djokovic was near-perfect. He surely is a great one, a legend.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Novak Djokovic Saves The Day In This Australian Open
It’s a good thing the Aussies allowed Novak Djokovic to stay in Melbourne this year.
Otherwise, the young crowd of players might have taken over completely in this Australian Open. After all, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, Daniil Medvedev and Iga Swiatek among others didn’t stick around very long.
Novak is saving the day Down Under for the great ones.
This is an Australian Open unlike any in recent years. It’s almost like the Australian Open, with its usual midnight to early-morning Eastern Time matches has taken a step backward in world tennis.
American fans apparently no longer can watch those great matches that start at 3 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. ET, except on ESPN+.
AUSTRALIAN OPEN LOST IN THE SHUFFLE
This Australian Open appears to be kind of lost in the shuffle this January, virtually taking away its major status.
In the absence of those early-morning battles, I guess it’s okay that most of the top men and women other than Novak, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Tommy Paul, Elena Rybakina and Jessie Pegula have sang their Aussie songs and headed elsewhere, except maybe for doubles.
Don’t overlook the tall Russian Rybakina on the women’s side. She’s two wins away from her second Grand Slam title, having upended the top-ranked Swiatek in the round of 16 and then taking care of former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the quarterfinals.
ALMOST LIKE A COLLEGE EVENT
Ben Shelton and J.J. Wolf are certainly outstanding American college level talents that came racing out of the winter red-hot.
But like MacKenzie McDonald, who thrashed an unprepared Nadal with a college-like all-power game only to falter the next round against a journeyman player like Yoshihito Nishioka, it’s doubtful that either Shelton or Wolf can stand the test of the only great one left — Djokovic.
In the long run, Shelton especially and Wolf likely will be stars. But these newcomers aren’t likely to hit the tour with the greatness that Carlos Alcaraz displayed when he was healthy during the last half of 2022.
WATCH FOR THE OTHER STARS AFTER AUSTRALIA
Other stars from last year such as Jannik Sinner, Cameron Norrie, Casper Ruud, Matteo Berrettini, Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev and Felix Auger-Aliassime will make their own noise once the tour hits Europe and America.
As far as Americans other than Paul, I like the looks of young Jenson Brooksby, who upended the second-ranked Ruud in the second round. The 22-year-old Brooksby looks like a future star, that is if he gets in better physical condition.
Thus, Novak appears to be an almost certainty to sweep to his 22nd major title in an event that has been his own private playground for much of his career. That shouldn’t change on Sunday in the Australian Open final.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
A Dream Week For Holger Rune In Paris
Across the springtime of 2022 and culminating at the end of summer, a 19-year-old Spaniard named Carlos Alcaraz made history of the highest order in his profession.
Alcaraz was astonishing during that span, establishing himself as the first teenager in the men’s game since Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2005 to capture a major when he took the U.S. Open title. This electrifying performer now resides at No.1 in the world and will probably conclude the year at the top despite an abdominal injury preventing him from competing at the season-ending ATP Finals in Turin.
To be sure, Alcaraz has been the sport’s “Man of the Year” in so many ways. And yet, a fellow teenager has now joined the Spaniard in the top ten, and that surely is no mean feat.
Denmark’s Holger Rune celebrated the most stupendously successful week of his career by improbably toppling the six-time champion Novak Djokovic to win the Rolex Paris Masters crown. Rune upended the game’s greatest front runner with a final round triumph he will surely remember for the rest of his life. Somehow, despite being in one precarious position after another—and finding himself dangerously low on oxygen at the end— Rune fended off a tennis icon who had swept 13 matches in a row over the autumn. Rune upended an unwavering yet apprehensive Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to garner his first Masters 1000 title. The grit and gumption he displayed on this auspicious occasion was ample evidence that he authentically has a champion’s mentality, a wealth of talent and a reservoir of courage that must be deeply admired.
It was a fascinating contest from beginning to end. Djokovic was unstoppable in the first set, breaking Rune in the fourth game when the precocious Dane served two double faults which seemed largely caused by overzealousness. Djokovic won 21 of 26 points on serve, nursed the one break he got very professionally, and outmaneuvered Rune time and again from the backcourt. His controlled aggression was first rate. Serving for that opening set at 5-3, Djokovic closed it out at love.
He then reached 0-40 on the Rune serve in the opening game of the second set, but squandered that opportunity flagrantly with an errant backhand passing shot, a netted forehand second serve return and a cautious overhead that eventually cost him the point. Rune held on sedulously, and soon moved to 3-0. That opening game was critical, changing the complexion of the set and allowing Rune to believe he was in with a chance.
Rune held serve the rest of the way to make it one set all. But, once more, Djokovic took command. He broke the Dane for a 3-1 third set lead when Rune went for broke on a big second serve down the T and double faulted. Djokovic sought to cement his advantage in the fifth game, opening up a 30-0 lead and later advancing to 40-30. He stood one point away from a 4-1 lead which might have proved insurmountable, but Rune made the Serbian pay for a backhand approach lacking sting and direction, passing Djokovic cleanly down the line off the backhand.
Rune managed crucially to break back, closing the gap to 3-2 and denying Djokovic a hold he should have had. Djokovic was visited at the changeover by the trainer, who attended to a left quad issue that was burdening the Serbian. But thereafter Djokovic seemed physically fine and appeared to be wearing Rune down. Leading 4-3, Djokovic pressed hard for a break, but again Rune obstinately stood his ground and came up with the goods in the clutch.
There were two deuces in that eighth game, but the Dane refused to allow Djokovic to reach break point. On both deuce points, the 19-year-old unleashed dazzling backhand winners down the line before holding on gamely. The set went to 5-5, and Rune’s opportunism was again showcased. Djokovic was ahead 30-0 but Rune collected four points in a row to seal the break, taking the last two on unprovoked mistakes from Djokovic.
And so Rune served for the match in the twelfth game of the third set with a 6-5 lead. His lungs were almost empty as Djokovic probed time and again to climb into a tie-break. It was hard to imagine if Djokovic managed to break back that Rune would be able to stay with him in that playoff. He was exhausted from the mental, emotional and physical strain of the hard fought third set.
Six times in that last game Djokovic stood at break point, but he could not convert. Rune’s temerity when it counted was almost breathtaking. He erased the first break point by lacing a forehand down the line for a winner, and then benefitted from a shocking Djokovic netted running forehand on the second. Then Djokovic had complete control on his third break point, only to send a backhand drop shot into the net.
Rune remained unrelenting, saving the fourth break point with an overhead winner, and erasing the fifth when Djokovic pulled a backhand pass wide with a clear opening. Rune reached match point for the first time but his explosive second serve landed long for a double fault. Djokovic advanced to break point for the sixth and last time, only to be stymied by a service winner from the Dane. Soon Rune was at match point for the second time, and he closed out the account stylishly with a forehand pass at the feet of Djokovic, who was coaxed into a netted half volley. For the first time ever in 31 Masters 1000 tournament finals, Djokovic had lost after securing the opening set. Walking on court with Rune in Paris, Djokovic’s career record overall after winning the first set was 891-38 (just shy of 96%), which is a higher success rate than any other male player in the Open Era.
Through nearly the entire last game of the encounter, Rune knew full well he had to finish it off there. Djokovic was well aware that his opponent was physically spent. Both players understood that the match was totally on the line; Djokovic would almost surely have prevailed in the tie-break had they gone there. For Djokovic, the loss was disappointing but not necessarily devastating. He put himself in a position to win twice, but did not realize his goal.
Yet he recognized that perhaps the match he played in the penultimate round against Stefanos Tsitsipas had taken a toll on him mentally. He had crushed Tsitsipas in the first set. From 2-2 in the first set he won five games in a row and then had a 0-30 lead on the Greek competitor’s serve early in the second set. Tsitsipas escaped and stretched Djokovic to his limits before the Serbian came through from a mini-break down at 3-4 in the third set tie-break to win four points in a row. Djokovic was victorious 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (4) but that victory required an inordinate amount of emotional energy.
An exuberant Rune was ready to pounce if given the opportunity. He did just that.
In fact, Rune set a Masters 1000 tournament record with five wins over players ranked in the top ten. His Paris indoor journey started when he fought back valiantly to defeat Stan Wawrinka 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), saving three match points in the process (two in the second set, one in the third). After that escape, Rune stopped Hubert Hurkacz 7-5, 6-1, Andrey Rublev 6-4, 7-5, Alcaraz 6-3, 6-6 retired, Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4 6-2 and then Djokovic.
Rune’s dynamic rise into the top ten has not happened by accident. He has won 19 of his last 21 matches, appearing in four consecutive ATP Tour finals during that remarkable span. He was beaten in the title round contest at Sofia by Marc-Andrea Huesler, won Stockholm over Tsitsipas, lost to Auger-Aliassime in the Basel final and now is the Rolex Paris Masters champion. Auger-Aliassime had won three straight titles before Rune stopped him in Paris. Djokovic had not lost since Auger-Aliassime defeated him at the Laver Cup. Rune refused to be intimidated by the size of their reputations and the strength of their recent records.
Rune wisely decided to skip the Next Gen ATP Finals this week in Milan. He will fittingly be the first alternate for the Nitto ATP Finals coming up in Turin starting on November 13. I have no doubt he will be ranked among the top five in the world by this time next year, and perhaps even reside among the top three. What impressed me the most in his match with Djokovic was his adaptability. Although Djokovic often set the tempo in that duel, Rune’s tactical skills were outstanding. At times he looped forehands and sent soft and low sliced backhands over the net to prevent Djokovic from feeding off of his pace. In other instances, Rune hit out freely and knocked the cover off the ball. He constantly shifted his strategy and Djokovic could not easily anticipate what was coming next. Rune employed the backhand down the line drop shot skillfully as another tool to keep Djokovic off guard.
No one in the game opens up the court better than Rune to set up forehand winners produced with a shade of sidespin that fade elusively away from his adversaries. Djokovic was the only player all week in Paris to comfortably return Rune’s serve, but on the big points Rune had an uncanny knack for finding the corners and landing big first serves. He saved ten of twelve break points against Djokovic. Moreover, he converted all three of his break points against a renowned opponent. Djokovic broke him twice but Rune would have lost his serve three more times if he had not performed mightily when his plight looked bleak.
What was most demonstrable at the Rolex Paris Masters was Rune’s propensity to play with immense poise under pressure. Not only did he survive that skirmish with the three time major champion Wawrinka in the opening round, but he somehow overcame Djokovic despite winning five fewer points across the three sets (97 to 92). Rune played the biggest points better than one of the most formidable match players of all time. He is a highly charged young player who has rubbed some players the wrong way with his high intensity bouts of abrasiveness on the court, but his comportment in Paris was very impressive and he did not put a foot out of line during his appointment with Djokovic. He handled the occasion awfully well under the circumstances.
In the weeks and months ahead, Rune will become a target of lesser ranked players looking to enlarge their reputations by virtue of striking down more accomplished adversaries. He will feel a different kind of pressure when he moves through the 2023 season in search of the premier prizes. But this is an enormously ambitious individual who is reminiscent of Alcaraz in terms of his outlook, sense of self, and mentality. They may well develop a stirring rivalry over the next five to ten years that will captivate galleries all over the world. Throw Auger-Aliassime into the mix with Alcaraz and Rune as well.
Tennis will be in exceedingly good shape in the years ahead. Djokovic remains in the forefront of the sport and he is a very young 35. The 36-year-old Nadal is not yet done by any means. But the younger generation is upon us, and it is apparent that Holger Rune is going to take his place among the game’s most illustrious players with increasing force, persuasion and urgency.
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