It’s risky, but I’m reading the Runes


It’s risky, but I’m reading the Runes

Among all the ‘promising' tennis stars, which young man will reach the top? ZIRK VAN DEN BERG backs Holger Vitus Nødskov Rune.


THE SUNDAY newspaper once devoted well over half a page to the announcement of a new rugby hero, a fellow called Swys Whatsisname who played centre for Maties. Here comes the next big Springbok, it predicted.

It was many years ago. I think Swys later did make the Western Province team, but the fact that I can't find the oke's last name in my memory or even on Google tells the story of what happened after that. He wasn't to be a Danie Gerber.

When a golf commentator once referred to a player as “promising", his colleague — whose name I also cannot remember — confessed that he himself had once been called promising. But in the end he became a commentator rather than a champion.

The point is that it is quite common for sports stars to be hailed as “promising", only to fall short of the expected heights.

The next Fedalkovic

With the fading of tennis's Big Three (Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, in case one reader is the last person on Earth to hear about this), pundits have scoured the rising generation in search of the next big star.

Because I have had an unhealthy interest in men's tennis for a long time, I remember that Jiří Veselý was once one of those earmarked for greatness. Jiří who?

Perhaps the most popular candidate in recent years has been the Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime. Félix has it all — athletic ability, a crushing serve, and above all a willingness to learn and improve. Moreover, he has an engaging personality, doesn't come across as inconsiderate, and with his interesting background (his father is from Togo) he is very marketable. But his rise has been painfully slow. He has been “promising" for years and soon he will progress from here to over the hill without a summit in between.

For Félix, the problem lies in the intangibles — all those qualities that are difficult to measure, such as attitude and decision-making on the court. Félix is ​​a talented fellow, but it seems to me he doesn't have the head of a champion. Maybe he will still make me eat my words.

Then there is the case of Jannik Sinner. His talent is jaw-dropping, and  improving year after year. Maybe one day he  will become the number one player. His results this year are top class. But younger players have already overtaken him , despite the fact that he is only 21.

It is true that some players develop more slowly than others. Roger Federer, for example, didn't set the world on fire as a teenager. The relative complexity of his playing style versus someone like Rafael Nadal's took longer to mature. Sinner's career could follow a similar path and maybe in 15 years we will know that he was the best of the current generation. Purely physically, he has only now reached his adult height, while Carlos Alcaraz already had a grown man's body at 18.

Breaking the pattern

Alcaraz was the one who broke the pattern of the always promising player". True, he was branded a potential star, but while fans were still salting their popcorn he won the US Open at 19 and became the youngest number one player in history. Once you reign, you are no longer promising.

The other contemporary player who bucks the promising" trope is Holger Vitus Nødskov Rune. I noticed him about three years ago, first because of his Viking name, which he has since shortened. Towards the end of last year, at the Masters tournament in Paris, he swept five top 10 players out of his way, including Novak Djokovic in the final, to take the title.

After this week, by the way, Rune's record against top five players is breathtaking: nine games played, seven wins.

On a point of order: Men's tennis tournaments have a very logical hierarchy. The winners of the “slams" (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open) get 2,000 points. Then there are nine Masters tournaments where you can win 1,000 points, as well as tournaments with 500 and 250 points for the winner.

Anyway, a month or so ago Rune reached the final of the Masters in Monte Carlo, and again on Sunday at the Masters in Rome. Here he had to bend the knee to Daniil Medvedev, who is surprising friend and foe on clay this year.

Rune is ranked number six. He is six days older than Alcaraz, nine months younger than Sinner. As an athlete, his abilities also fall between theirs. But it seems to me that he, rather than Sinner, will be the opponent who has the best chance of knocking Alcaraz out of the number one spot in coming years.

The Dane is big and strong and has no weaknesses in his game, but his success is mainly to do with his attitude — precisely what Auger-Aliassime lacks. Alcaraz plays with exuberant pleasure, Sinner with quiet determination, but Rune is almost desperately obsessed. His passion and immaturity sometimes cause him to become sulky and he has been labelled as one of tennis's bad boys", which he really is not.

(Tennis's present bad boy", by the way, is actually a girl — Jeļena Ostapenko. The stocky Latvian is a sourpuss and a grouch.)

Anyway, when Stan Wawrinka lost to Rune in Paris last year, he addressed the young man at the net and told him not to act like a baby. And I can agree with that. Holger needs to calm down a bit … but not too much. His cockiness means  he is not afraid of big players and opportunities. The audience may boo, his opponents may boo, but he continues to bash that ball.

He has good genetics — his mother apparently was a ballerina — and from an early age had to cope against his big sister Alma. She is six years older and played tennis quite seriously. Little brother had to work hard to beat her.

Young Holger apparently alternated posters of Federer and Nadal on his bedroom wall, depending who was number one at the time. He doesn't waste time on second best.

His mother says that when he played his first tournaments against older children, she told him it would be good if he could reach the quarterfinals. Little Holger wanted to know why he couldn't just win.

That's the attitude he still has today. And it's that insolence that makes him so dangerous. Watch out, everybody.


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