A Little of This, And Then That, plus The Audacity of Hope
After 3 days at the US Open last week, an unexpected opportunity to go to Monday’s session came up and I took it.
The way the Open is structured now tickets are for either grounds passes, Ashe, Armstrong, or the (New) Grandstand. Grounds pass tickets do not get you into Ashe at all, and on the other courts it’s first-come-first-served access to the relatively few seats not sold as part of a ticket.
What this meant is that my ticket for Armstrong, bought before the order of play came out, gave me a chance to watch only second tier singles 4th round matches; apologies to David Goffin, Andrey Rublev, Kaia Kanepi, Daria Kasatkina, Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares (men’s doubles #1 seeds), and a few other players, but they’re not Rafa, Federer, Pliskova, Vandeweghe et al. The result: my choice of what to see required some planning which, in the end, worked out perfectly.
Arriving at 10 AM, my first order of business was to go see who was on the practice courts. Venus Williams is already there with her coach, David Witt. I don’t recognize who she was hitting with, but they’re working her groundstrokes. Witt appears to be encouraging Williams to hit the ball, mostly her forehand, in more of an arc rather than in a flat line, especially when she moves around a backhand and goes inside/out. Plus, she was repeatedly moving to her left to hit inside/in forehands; getting ready to go to Kvitova’s backhand Tuesday night?
What’s the most impressive thing about Williams’ hitting?: How fast she can move out wide to either side, from a standstill, and yet manage to crack the ball. It happens in the blink of an eye: boom!, she’s there, and the ball goes back over the net with no hint of weakness.
They move on to hitting serves. Venus hits 20 or 30 dollies, the ball barely making it over the net, maybe 30 or 40 mph. Then she starts working her way up the intensity ladder, finally unloading on a bunch of serves. The WTA’s new effort to improve serving among women has taken note of how much time the Williams’ have put into their deliveries, and for good reason.
The Bryans come out to the practice courts with their coach, David MacPherson. Bob and Mike, still the top-ranked American doubles team at 39 years old, go through all the drills you’d expect. One lightly played point between them morphs into one of their favorite drills, what they call the Romanian Davis Cup volley. Watch the video and be impressed. Super impressed.
MacPherson, along with another coach, begin serving to the twins from half court, with the four players playing two “points” simultaneously, points being played hitting crosscourt at the same time. It’s all about grooving small bits for them; hit a return, make one volley, repeat. They do the same thing with the Bryans serving, although the coaches often feed the “return” out of their hand, not counting on their own skill to consistently let them return the pros’ serves.
The Junior Girls’ and Boys’ tournaments are played during the second week of the Grand Slam tournaments. I’d never seen them, and thought this a good chance to do so. The first match on Armstrong was a contest between unseeded men’s doubles teams, so I decided to forego that and set out to see the #1 seeds in both the girls’ and boy’s draws.
While on the topic of court scheduling and the Junior tournaments, here’s an idea I tweeted at the US Open (I’m @TennisSkip1515): start the junior matches at 10 AM instead of 11:00 AM, which is when the pros start. Spectators would get to spend time watching the up-and-comers of the game without missing any of the big girls and boys, and foreign visitors would get a chance to support the juniors form their home countries. Hell, let the juniors start at 9:30. They’re kids, right? They can wake up a little earlier. Plus spectators will get to see more tennis, and the vendors sell more coffee. Win/win/win.
Whitney Osuigwe (USA) vs Margaryta Bilokin (Ukraine)
Osuigwe is the #1 seed. She won the 2017 French juniors and made the finals of the junior doubles at Wimbledon. She trains at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida (nee The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy), where her dad is a teaching pro, and turned 15 in April. (!)
Bilokin, on the other hand, hails from the Ukraine, where it must be much, much more difficult to pursue a tennis career right now. She had to play through the qualifying for the main draw juniors.
This match is played on the Grandstand. It’s empty, so I have no problems finding a seat. Before the match begins there’s a demonstration of the USTA’s NetGen program for kids 5-18 years old. (Now there’s a wide demographic.) Today we get to see little players. It’s cute and probably very effective.
Once Osuigwe and Bilokin start the differences between them are very evident. For one thing, the American is clearly not awed by the setting, while the Ukrainian is, if not nervous, then simply not as comfortable. She foot faults twice in the first game and double faults to lose it. It’s understandable; you feel for her.
Then there’s the matter of where each of them are as players. Bilokin is a good junior. Osuigwe resembles a mini-pro. She creates power with an ease that Bilokin just does not have, moves better, and snaps first serves regularly in the upper 90s and low 100s. Bilokin gets the same mph on her first, but it’s rarely in. (So, does it count?).
A questions occurs to me: do the juniors get to use Hawkeye? I find out later…..
Not surprisingly Bilokin doesn’t have enough to bother Osiugwe, however, and the #1 seed moves on.
Osuigwe defeats Bilokin 6/1 6/4
Axel Geller (Argentina) vs Andrew Fenty (USA)
Fenty is down 2/5 and 0/40 when I take my seat on Court 17. This match resembles the Osuigwe/Bilokin contest in that Geller, the boys’ #1 seed, plays a game more reminiscent of an ATP pro than Fenty. No mistake about it, Fenty would be a top player at pretty much any club in the country (and then some); he serves in the 90s for second serves, 110+ for firsts, has a powerful forehand and backhand, volleys pretty well, has a sound drop shot (more later), and isn’t afraid to vary his game.
But Geller, who won the Junior Doubles at Wimbledon this year, hits his first in the high 120s (topping 130 once, as well), and hits the ball more assertively, more often, from more positions. It’s not as much Very Good Junior vs Semi Pro as the girl’s match, but the similarities are there.
My question about Hawkeye in the junior tourneys gets answered as Geller calls for a review of one of his serves. This only strengthens my opinion that not having Hawkeye on all the courts is both unfair and a stain on our sport. As top-ranked juniors continue to rise in the rankings they’ll get time on Hawkeye courts that lesser junior players won’t. Then, as pros, the marquee players are always on Hawkeye courts while the number 70s of the world aren’t. Not only should the same recourse to bad calls be available to all players at any one tournament, but all players should also have equal access to learning how to manage challenges.
This really should be fixed.
Fenty stays abreast of Geller through the second set, acquitting himself well. They both veer between looking like pros and looking like the juniors they are, but that’s not to say the tennis isn’t engaging and or that their competitive fires aren’t stoked. At 4/4 Fenty serves his way to 40/30, then hits a nervous double fault to go back to deuce. He’s broken, the close race comes to a not-unexpected stage, and Geller serves it out for the W.
Geller defeats Fenty 6/3 6/4
As I make my way to Armstrong for Goffin/Rublev I stop briefly at Court 7 to see Sebastian Korda, the #8 seed. He’s the son of Petr Korda, who won the Australian in 1998. I always loved watching Korda Senior play and wanted to see his son; the father’s drug suspension didn’t especially put me off him. I always suspected the bone fracture in his foot was the cause of his taking nandrolone, either knowingly or unknowingly as he claimed. His physique was far too toothpick-like for him to be profiting from steroids. (I’m only slightly kidding.)
When I was let onto the court it was very apparent who was the Korda offspring: he’s right-handed, and without the spiky, Woodstock hair, but junior’s built just like dad.
Korda (USA) defeats Draper (UK) 6/2 6/2
David Goffin (9) vs Andrey Rublev
For 2017 Armstrong is a temporary court as they build a new permanent stadium on the site of the old one. Unusual for America, the new stadium will keep the name of the old one – no new title sponsorship’s being sold here – and the history of the stadium is being respected, harkening back to both the 1964 World’s Fair and the New Orleans jazz great, Louis Armstrong.
Goffin was injured at the 2017 French Open when he ran to the back of the court, accidentally put his foot down on a rolled tarp by the fence, and severely twisted his ankle, forcing him to retire. He’s been on the comeback trail since then, his ranking more a reflection of his year to date than of his most recent results; he’s not won more than two rounds at a tournament since Roland Garros.
Rublev is generating buzz. He’s one of the ATP’s NextGen players, so I was interested in seeing him.
Is it harsh of me to say, “Eh?” From what I saw, perhaps a set and a half’s worth, I found Rublev to be rather, oh, generic. I saw no great weapons, including an absence of great movement that could be a weapon unto itself (think, Michael Chang). Having said that, I realize that “last ball in play wins the day”, and it’s not necessary to be either flashy or have a particularly outstanding physical weapon in order to record top shelf tennis results (see the opponent: David Goffin, or that other David, Ferrer). Don’t miss and you win, etc., etc, and Rublev does more than just “not miss”, but is he a leading contender for being the next big thing? I don’t see that on the horizon.
Goffin, meanwhile, is obviously still hampered by the injury to his left knee. My friend Graham is a chiropodist/podiatrist, and during the match I sent him a video of Goffin playing, including serves, and walking to and from his chair, to get Graham’s opinion of whether the Belgian was favoring his left leg or not. The verdict? Yes, definitely. With the caveat that Graham was “diagnosing” from thousands of miles away, it appeared to both of us that Goffin was unable (or uncomfortable) keeping any weight on his left leg, most notably at the end of his service motion and in moving to his right, which requires a strong first steps with the left leg. Many of Rublev’s shots to Goffin’s forehand side were not even chased down, and for Goffin, whose game depends so greatly on his wheels, this spells doom.
And so it did. Unfortunately his injury prevented the 9th seed from advancing, while Rublev gets a date with Nadal.
Rublev defeats Goffin 7/5 7/6 6/3
Dominic Thiem (6) vs Juan Martin del Potro (24)
By now you’ve read about this titanic, highly anticipated match, surely the greatest comeback I’ve ever witnessed. (In this regard I’m in good company: Darren Cahill said the same). I had gone to the Grandstand early, during the beginning of the preceding doubles match between the Bryans and Oliver Marach/Mate Pavich, looking to grab a good seat. Fat chance. The rest of the world had the same idea. The place was packed to the rafters and then some.
To say delPo looked terrible at the start of the contest is a grand understatement. My friend, Rollo Tomasi, seated in the lower level, texted me that the Argentinean looked like “he’s going to hurl.” The guy was suffering. No matter how well Thiem were to play, for him to win 2 sets against delPo in 63 minutes is not possible without a bunch of unforced errors from Argentina’s Davis Cup hero, and that’s just what was happening.
Because del Potro believes there are no scripts in sport, or probably life itself, what looked to be an anti epic, an almost embarrassing defeat of a great player who was ill, turned out to be a classic for the ages I’m reminded of Jimmy Connors who, when asked how he managed to hang in during a match when he was well down in the score, replied, “You never know what’s going to happen. The other guy could roll his ankle on the next point.” Juan Martin believes the same, and much, much more.
Two very scratchy sets of tennis by the Argentine could easily have turned into a retirement; “Sorry, I just can’t go on, I’m too sick.” Surely many players would have done so (I’m thinking of you, Nick Kyrgios). But del Potro is made of sterner stuff; is it respect for the game, for the ticket holders, because he refuses to give up? All of the above. We love del Potro for reasons Kyrgios doesn’t understand and might never appreciate.
With Thiem up 4/1 in the second my notes read, “hindsight will be 20/20 but I suspect this game will be the one that determines whether or not we have a match.” Boy was I wrong. Even though del Potro is driving his two-handed backhand more now than when he first returned to the tour, Thiem went on to win the second set.
The atmosphere was unbelievable. It was all Davis Cup for del Potro – the chants of “ole, ole, ole ole…” could be deafening – to the extent that if you thought it was a home tie played in Buenos Aires your mistake would be understandable. I may have heard one lonely Austrian supporter occasionally cough out a feeble, “C’mon Dominic!,” but that was about all the love Thiem got.
When delPo was down 2/5 I the 4th set it was only hold/break/hold for the man from Tandil. Of course that’s easier said than done, but the climb back from such a deficit isn’t that rare, and so it proved in this case. Del Potro held for 3/5, got to 4/5 when he broke as Thiem served for the match at 5/3, and then faced two match points at 15/40, 5/6 on his own serve.
As the match had progressed more and more power flowed from the Argentine’s racquet. Down two match points he magically, heroically, stupendously fired two aces to bring the game to deuce. The place went wild.
All credit to Thiem. He didn’t collapse. He remembered he was two sets to the good, and still on serve. He kept going for his shots, many of which were amazing, especially a number of backhands he fired up the line for winners. Del Potro was going from strength to strength, however, and the pressure was starting to produce cracks in Thiem’s game. Receiving in the first game of the fifth set Thiem got to what Brad Gilbert’s called a “near break point”, up 15/30 against the Argentine’s serve, but couldn’t turn that into a full break and del Potro held to lead, 1/0. Later, serving at 2/3, Thiem double faulted to open the game, went down 0/40, but held on to win. The fissures were widening.
Serving at 4/5, still on serve, Thiem faced down a match point at ad/out when delPo made a backhand unforced error. There was to be no repeat. At deuce Del Potro unloaded on a forehand for a winner and then, confirmed by a Hawkeye review, Thiem double faulted at match point out.
Game, set, match Juan Martin del Potro, regardless of how unbelievable that outcome was just two hours earlier.
In the kind of conversation one has in the stands at matches, I met the woman next to me, Debbie. She told me about how she’d been at the Open in 1992 when Connors famously came back from two sets down to Patrick McEnroe, and then again when he beat Aaron Krickstein in the next round. She was there when Sampra threw up while playing Alex Corretja but hung on to win, too.
Monday night Debbie got another classic to add to her list. If I’m lucky I might, just might get to see one more the equal of this.
I doubt it.
How delPo made himself press on when all appeared lost is almost incomprehensible. The audacity of that kind of hope, of belief, of a will to drive forwards unsure of what will come to be, separates athletes like him from we mere mortals.
del Potro defeats Thiem 1/6 2/6 6/1 7/6 (1) 6/4
As I rode the train back to Philadelphia I had my own hope: sitting for hours at that gargantuan match I’d missed dinner. Would the café car deliver a delicious meal? Nope. Not this time. In my case, hope lost out, but I didn’t care. My tennis cup ran over yesterday, and no third rate burger could possibly ruin it.
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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