EXCLUSIVE: Meet the man who’s got the wood on Novak – Danish star Holger Rune opens up on how he’s got the better of Djokovic, winding up his opponents and his rivalry with world No 1 Carlos Alcaraz ahead of Wimbledon
- Holger Rune knows better than anybody how to beat Novak Djokovic on court
- The 20-year-old has risen from the backwater of Danish tennis to be a star
- The feisty Dane is tipped to dominate tennis with world No 1 Carlos Alcaraz
The over-arching question at Wimbledon this year is if anyone can beat Novak Djokovic, and there is at least one man who knows how.
He is only 20 years old and comes from the relative tennis backwater of Denmark.
Twice in the past eight months Holger Rune has got the better of the great Serb, and has the rare distinction of boasting a winning record against the man on schedule to carry off the calendar Grand Slam.
His victories have contributed to his rise to world No 6, and his insertion into a conversation speculating that, in the long term, he and Carlos Alcaraz will be the next great rivalry in tennis.
Rune has reached this point due to a combination of a superb all-round game and a combative attitude which does not involve taking a backward step. He has a habit of rubbing opponents up the wrong way, and among those he has fallen out with are Casper Ruud and Stan Wawrinka.
Holger Rune knows as well as anybody at Wimbledon how to beat star man Novak Djokovic
The 20-year-old has risen from the backwaters of Danish tennis to climb the ATP rankings
Talking at the All England Club this week, he makes no apology for getting into opponents’ faces in the heat of battle, although with Djokovic it is strictly business as the two of them get along off the court.
So how did he manage to defeat him in the contrasting conditions of last November’s indoor Paris Masters and at the recent Italian Open, where the Serb has a particularly outstanding record?
‘In a way he is the most complicated opponent to face, but he is also the most simple,’ explains the articulate Rune.
‘It’s complicated just because he can do everything, and simple because you know at the start of the match that you are getting nothing, and that there is never any point in just hoping he makes mistakes, you have to win every point.
‘I’m just going full on in my game, trying to get him outside of his comfort zone, and then when I see maybe he feels out of his comfort zone I start to really attack.
‘In Paris when I played him in the final, it was super close and I broke him at five all in the third set to serve for the match. I told myself, “Okay, I know even if I serve good I know the return will come back at full power and I know he’s not going to miss”.
‘Of course he started by putting the returns straight back at my feet and suddenly it’s 0-30. I was like, “okay, this is not going to happen unless I make it happen”. So let’s try to be ready on the second shot and build the point. I did that and it was an incredible last game, I was super brave and I did it.’
Rune has that unshakeable self-belief of youth, and it can wind up his elders.
In Paris three-times Major winner Wawrinka told him at the net to ‘stop acting like a baby on court’, while at last year’s French Open there was a locker room altercation with Ruud, about which they gave different accounts.
Rune is one of the young stars of the ATP Tour but he is not lacking in self belief at the slams
Rune boasts a good record against the all-conquering Serb, beating him twice in eight months
Rune poses with Djokovic after beating the veteran at the ATP World Tour Masters in Paris
At Queen’s last week he had a feisty encounter with Italian Lorenzo Musetti, who at one point hit him with a smash. Rune puts it down to white line fever, and sees nothing wrong with a dust up in a sport that sees you going head-to-head.
‘I’ve always been very competitive, very pumped when I play,’ he says.
‘I think it’s a good thing and the next generation is maybe more energetic on the court than let’s say the generation above us, we are quite different.
‘With the majority of tennis tour, you’re friends off the court and when you step on the court, you are your rivals, you do everything you can to win you push each other to the limit. You want to beat the opponent and when the match is finished, it’s finished.
‘Some take it more personally. When you battle and you push yourself to the limit, frustration comes from that sometimes and I think it’s a part of the game. That’s, at least that’s how I am. When it’s finished it’s done, that’s how I’ve been raised and been told to do.’
Rune comes from Gentofte, a northern suburb of Copenhagen. It is the same place that once produced the notable film-maker and writer Torben Ulrich, who also reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon’s doubles, and whose son Lars found fame as the drummer of rock band Metallica.
The son of a shipping agent, he ditched an early fondness for football to concentrate on tennis. Soon he found himself competing against Alcaraz, who is exactly a week younger than him (another rivalry saw Djokovic and Andy Murray also born a week apart).
‘I think the first time we played we were about 10, our first meeting was in Mallorca. It’s always been he beat me, and then I would beat him, we always had very good matches. I think we bring the best out of each other when we play.
‘He’s very easy to get along with. In the beginning he didn’t speak much English so it was tough to have a real conversation with him but he’s a super nice guy. You could already feel then that he had something.
‘He had weapons already and if you can build that so early in your career, it’s a big thing. Many junior players play a lot of balls in the court and wait for the opponent to miss, but there were a few of us that didn’t wait for the opening.’
Rune is widely tipped to dominate tennis alongside Carlos Alcaraz in the years to come
Now fully formed, his game combines a kicking serve with accurate firepower off both wings, and a brooding intensity.
If anything, his coaches have suggested that he slightly needs to throttle back on a commitment which sees him having to be restrained from the practice court. Again there is no compromising.
‘I think if you ever want to achieve those dreams, you have to be obsessed with it,’ says Rune. ‘And I think that’s how it is in everything in life. If you want to be the best of the best, no matter what it is, if you don’t put in your heart and your soul into it’s not possible. So now I’m not going to change that, tennis is everything for me.
‘I feel like the good thing about my life that I choose it. I don’t see it like “ah s**t we have to wake up Monday morning to practice”. Many people maybe think like this in other jobs but I feel blessed to be able to live my dream.’
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