With the injury-enforced absence of Rafael Nadal, the long-reigning King of Clay, the men’s section of Roland-Garros wears an open look.
The popular storylines involving the contenders include Novak Djokovic’s quest for a record 23rd Major title, Carlos Alcaraz’s bid to win a Grand Slam on the red dirt and prove that his breakthrough US Open triumph last year was the ushering in of a new dawn, and Daniil Medvedev’s recent “friendship” with clay, a surface that had tormented him until this season.
Bubbling just underneath these talking points is Holger Rune, the first Dane to enter the ATP top 10. A peer of Alcaraz — the 20-year-olds were born a week apart in April-May — Rune is a former French Open boys’ singles champion. Three years after his triumph in the juniors, he made the quarterfinals at Roland-Garros on his senior debut in 2022.
The Djokovic seal of approval
These aren’t the only indicators of his pedigree, especially on clay. He has the Djokovic seal of approval: the 36-year-old sees a lot of himself in the young man and there are few higher compliments in tennis. Rune defeated the great Serb in the final of the Paris Masters last year and beat him again at the Italian Open last week.
Only five players have winning head-to-head records against Djokovic over the course of at least three matches, which makes Rune’s 2-1 lead all the more special.
After his second straight loss to the Dane, Djokovic was moved to say that the long-awaited “shift of generations” had finally come to men’s tennis, which has been dominated since the mid-2000s by the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. He also talked up Rune’s chances at the French Open, putting him in the same bracket as the Spanish World No. 1: “Alcaraz, Rune… these guys are right there in contention, some of the biggest favourites.”
Asked what makes Rune such a dangerous opponent, Djokovic said, “He kind of reminds me of me, the way he plays. Really fit physically, great defence, but also great counter-puncher. He can hurt you from both the forehand and backhand side. Really solid serve. Aggressive returns. He’s very, very fast, very quick. Great anticipation. Very tough to get the ball past him. Just a very talented, dynamic, all-around player on all surfaces.”
If the win over Djokovic in Paris was a breakthrough moment for the 6’2” Dane, the one at the Foro Italico felt like confirmation that he belonged among the elite.
“If it’s working against Novak, it works against almost anybody,” Rune said of his 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 quarterfinal victory. He also spoke of how difficult it is to convert advantages and finish matches against Djokovic because the Serb begins to swing with even more freedom. “At the end, when Novak goes into this mode, nothing can come at him and he plays really free and aggressive,” said Rune. “When you want to close the match, it’s really difficult.”
Rune could not win the Italian Open, falling to Medvedev in the final, but showed enough over the clay-court season to suggest that he can put together a deep run at Roland-Garros. He finished runner-up to Andrey Rublev at the Monte Carlo Masters and successfully defended his Munich title, building up a 13-3 record (81% win-rate) on the dirt this year.
Rune’s mix of explosive power and exquisite touch — he struck an 83 mph forehand return winner off a first serve and produced savvy drop shots that stopped dead in Rome — offer him rally-ending weapons on clay. But he is not afraid to scrap for his points either.
Perhaps most importantly, he is able to produce his best against the best on all surfaces. He has a positive 13-10 record against players ranked in the top 10, which is uncommon for somebody just out of his teens. He beat five top-10 players on his way to the Paris Masters title last year and has already recorded wins over Djokovic, Medvedev, Ruud and Jannik Sinner this year.
“I play some of my best tennis when I play the top guys of the world,” Rune said. “Playing juniors, I was number one at the Under-14, 16 and 18 [levels], so I’m used to playing as the one who has to win. It’s obviously different now, playing the big guys on the big stage but I’m excited about it. It’s better to play in a full stadium that’s loud than in front of nobody, so I see it as a positive.”
A bad boy?
Rune’s competitiveness can sometimes boil over. He has had spats with chair umpires. He also appeared to use a homophobic slur in a match during his teens, which he apologised for and claimed was directed at himself not his opponent. He disagrees, however, with the characterisation of him as a ‘bad boy’, recently saying, “I play with a lot of passion and energy… I don’t know why that should be a bad boy thing, to play with energy on the court. A bad boy thing is to break rackets. If I remember well, I don’t break a racket when I play.”
Rune wants to translate his drive to win into Grand Slam success this year, continuing an astonishing rise from World No. 511 to World No. 6 over the last two and a half years.
“Roland-Garros is the main goal of the clay season. I think I had the matches that I needed to be as well-prepared as possible,” he said ahead of the year’s second Major. “I want to win a Grand Slam this year. I hope it can be achieved at the French Open. If not, I hope to make it in the other two Grand Slams.”
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