The 20-year-old world No 6 on his breakthrough season, his bad boy reputation and coping with hostile crowds
Thu 25 May 2023 06.13 EDT
During the quarter-finals of the Italian Open last week in Rome, Holger Rune was deep in battle with Novak Djokovic on one of the most meaningful courts of the then No 1’s career. It is a measure of his talent that not only was he winning the encounter, but that it was not a surprise.
As Djokovic forced himself back into the match, however, Rune’s growing tension was palpable. It eventually exploded. When the umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, came down from his chair to rule one of Djokovic’s shots had touched the line, Rune was incensed. He called Lahyani an “absolute joke” and demanded to know whether umpires are penalised for their mistakes. As his team tried to calm him down, Rune slumped in his chair and sighed. “It’s always the umpire who makes me look like the bad guy,” he said.
After nearly two months of the European clay season, Rune has emerged as one of the most successful players, alongside his fellow 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz. He has shown at the same time that he is one of the sport’s most unpredictable figures.
“It’s a fine balance,” says Rune of ensuring that his on-court intensity helps him. “Because people see it in different ways, which is fine, I respect it. But everybody’s different on the court, everybody plays differently and I think this is part of the game. I think if everybody was the same, it would be a bit boring. So, I like variety.”
Rune’s path towards the top of the game has been unusual. It is not just that Denmark tends not to produce top players, but there are barely any professional Danish tennis players at all. Rune is the only Dane inside the top 400 of the ATP rankings and only four others are inside the top 1000. Before Rune, Caroline Wozniacki was a similar Danish anomaly. Rune notes that no national federation helped guide him at the beginning of his career.
“We had to do it by ourselves,” he says. “We didn’t have a federation that took [the] cause for you or anything like that. We had to dig deep but it’s also what makes being here more admirable and exciting because I know where I came from, and it’s just a lot of hard work and dedication every day.”
While he has arrived in the top 10 quickly, Rune’s trajectory has been consistent. He was a junior No 1, winning the French Open boys title in 2019. As a professional, Rune’s career truly began after the 2020 Covid hiatus when old ATP ranking points were frozen, meaning it was much more difficult to scale the rankings. Still, Rune won five ATP Challenger events between 2021 and 2022 and he eventually overcame a significant cramping issue to nestle himself inside the top 100.
The most striking part of Rune’s game is how well-rounded it is. He is a tremendous athlete with great defence, solid and potent off both forehand and backhand wings, making it difficult for opponents to target any specific weakness. His serve has improved significantly but he is an excellent returner. “He kind of reminds me a little bit [of me], the way he plays,” said Djokovic in Rome.
Rune pairs his solid foundations with feel and instinctiveness, peppering opponents with drop shots and freely approaching the net, a style he describes as more risky but worthwhile. “I feel like these days every player is super powerful from the baseline and they stay there a lot. And I feel like mixing up the game is still really effective,” says Rune.
Last year, Rune offered a glimpse of his talent and potential, with both of his breakthrough tournaments occurring in the same city. First he reached his first major quarter-final at the French Open, picking off Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas en route. Five months later, he pulled off an even more outlandish achievement.
At the Paris Masters, Rune became the first ATP player to defeat five top-10 players in a single conventional tournament. After upsetting Hubert Hurkacz, Andrey Rublev, Alcaraz (who retired in the second set tie-break due to injury) and Félix Auger-Aliassime, he produced the performance of his life to defeat Djokovic 7-5 in the third set of the final.
“It takes a lot,” says Rune on what he learned from the experience. “It’s not easy, I tell you. It’s a lot of hard work. If you stop doing the hard work, you’re finished, boom. And you have to be able to maintain your high level every time you step on the court.
“Today, for example, I practised with Rublev. I kept my level good in the first set, but then I stepped a little bit down and – boom – he killed me. You have to be able to stay there and even raise it if necessary.”
This clay-court season has been perhaps the best extended period of Rune’s career to date. He reached ATP Masters 1000 finals in Monte Carlo and Rome, losing to Rublev and Daniil Medvedev respectively. He beat four top-10 players in those tournaments, including the world No 1 Djokovic, and also won an ATP 250 in Munich after saving four match points against Botic van de Zandschulp in the final.
As he has risen, the drama has followed at a breathless rate. Even before he reached the top 100, he was already releasing strongly worded statements on social media, criticising the ATP for its ranking system after the Covid hiatus. After losing their French Open quarter-final, he accused the mild-mannered Casper Ruud of shouting “Jaa” in his face in the locker room and a lack of class. He was told by Stan Wawrinka to “stop acting like a baby on court”. Recently, he has continually argued with umpires about his reaction to hostile crowds. He can be petulant on court and, as Lahyani found out, sometimes cross the line.
Off the court, Rune is far less of an extrovert, although his ambition is clear. He has rejected suggestions that he is a “villain” but fans have taken note of his demeanour and they constantly prod him when he faces popular players. When a crowd boos him, he usually gestures back.
“I might take a nap,” says Rune on how he will deal with hostile crowds in the future. “I’m just going to wait for them to finish. Obviously they can do what they want but I don’t think it’s nice for the crowd to delay a game for 10 minutes. I don’t care, I’m just there to play the tennis match.”
Not all of the incidents have been so inoffensive. In 2021, Rune was caught on video shouting gay slurs after points during an ATP Challenger match in Biella, Italy. Rune insisted that the slurs were towards himself rather than his opponent, Tomás Etcheverry, as if this somehow excused the comments.
His initial reaction to the subsequent criticism fanned the flames: “Sorry for not being as perfect yet as you all expect,” he initially wrote. Rune subsequently edited the post and apologised. He was eventually fined by the ATP.
Today, Rune sits at a career-high ranking of No 6 and as the French Open beckons, he is the only player to have reached two Masters 1000 finals on clay this year. He will head to Roland Garros having positioned himself as a clear contender in the most open edition of the event since he was merely a one-year-old.