At a time when the established group of younger men’s tennis players should be making their move, an even newer generation has emerged doing everything in their power to stop them.
Holger Rune caused the biggest upset of the men’s draw so far as the 19-year-old outplayed Stefanos Tsitsipas 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to reach a grand slam quarter-final for the first time in his career on his French Open debut. In the process, the bottom half of the men’s draw has swung wide open. Tsitsipas, last year’s finalist and the fourth seed, had been the favourite to return to the final.
Like Tsitsipas, Rune is a student of the Mouratoglou Academy, where he has trained since his early teens, and a contest against its talisman carried greater significance. Throughout the match, he pressured Tsitsipas with deep, consistent returns that landed at his opponent’s laces and forced him to retreat. Rune served well in the important moments and moved up to the baseline when he could, finishing with 54 winners in total. Most notably, he peppered Tsitsipas with delicate and well-timed drop shots.
As Rune tried to serve out Tsitsipas in the fourth set, he finally felt the weight of the moment. He led 5-2 with two breaks, only to lose eight points in a row and find himself desperately trying to hold on to his lead. He recovered, saved the break points and advanced.
Such a result has been coming. While the success of Carlos Alcaraz has overshadowed all else, Rune has quietly made rapid progress. Twelve months ago he was ranked 313rd a week before he won the first of four ATP Challenger titles last year. He claimed his first ATP title in Munich this month as a wildcard and this result will propel him into the top 30. In his first round match here, Rune picked apart Denis Shapovalov in straight sets.
Rune is brash and unapologetic about his confidence, which are qualities that have helped him. After watching Rafael Nadal win his 13th French Open title in October 2020, Rune told the Danish press that he believes he can beat Nadal’s record in Paris. “If I really focus and play my tennis, I can beat almost everybody,” he said on Mondayyesterday. His behaviour, however, has also been unsavoury. Last year, he apologised after being fined by the ATP for shouting gay slurs during an ATP Challenger match.
By the time Rune had finished his on-court interview, Tsitsipas’s post-match press conference had already begun, his devastation palpable. Asked about Rune’s best qualities, Tsitsipas described Rune’s backhand as “very consistent, very precise,” but his compliment was backhanded: “But he gets tight. When he gets down, he has his forehand [in] a very extreme grip, I don’t know about … anyway, he’s a grinder.”
Between his recent 0-3 record against Alcaraz and a new defeat against Rune, Tsitsipas is now learning what it feels like to have a target on his back: “These kids are going to want to beat me badly because obviously they are chasing,” he said. “I’m chasing too, but I’m at a different kind of position than they are. I’m hungry to beat them too. Now that they have beat me, I want payback.”
Rune, meanwhile, does not begrudge the attention his peer receives. He believes that Alcaraz deserves it all andhe is focused on himself: “I’m going at my own pace, at my own kind of way, and improving at my own time,” he said. “It’s great. Everybody has their own journey, and this is mine.”
Against Nadal’s hopes, the Roland Garros organisers have announced that his quarter-final meeting with Novak Djokovic will occur in the night session on Tuesday, not before 8:45pm local time.