The Heel

Watching Holger Rune on court is often funny. He’ll celebrate points that are not particularly important. He has a baby face, and he often looks like he’s cringing, which makes his crowd-urging motions look delightfully awkward. The electric tennis he’s capable of producing only adds to the effect. I’m sure Rune’s expressions are more a product of instinct than a manifestation of insecurity, but his face resembles more the mildly uncomfortable child in a carseat than the focused genius at work. Alcaraz celebrates and engages the crowd with similar motions, but his expression is saying, I am a king, and you should appreciate my kingliness. Rune’s features say that he’s hoping the crowd will applaud him, but that he’s not sure if they will.

While Alcaraz has ascended to Golden Boy status, Rune has managed to annoy the masses a handful of times throughout his fledgling career. It’s not just that he isn’t as good as Carlos yet. He admonished himself with the f-slur while playing in the Biella Challenger in 2021. He makes snarky social media comments, whether it’s in response to someone else getting the Most Improved award in 2022 or to a fan who Rune feels hard done by. He yelled at his mom to leave the stadium en route to getting beaten by world-renowned nice guy Casper Ruud in the Roland-Garros quarterfinals last year, then accused Ruud of jawing at him in the locker room afterwards. Rune is young enough that these events will likely be footnotes in his career eulogy by the time he retires, but his antics are playing a part in how many view him during potentially formative years.

Rune doesn’t seem to dislike playing the heel, though. Openly stating that you think you can win more Roland-Garros titles than Rafa Nadal kinda suggests that you don’t mind ruffling a few feathers. And he already has an impressive CV, headlined by a comeback win against Novak Djokovic in the Paris Masters final at the end of last year. We’re likely only seeing the very beginning of Rune’s prominence on tour. He is only 19, but he’s nowhere near as physically developed as Alcaraz. While his cramping is no longer as much of a meme (it used to be so frequent that it became a joke in Challenger Tennis circles), he’s still not over the problem entirely, suggesting that he can still improve. And he has some self-defeating tendencies — you can point to each of his last two losses to Andrey Rublev and say that Rune should have won them comfortably.

It’s funny, because the apparent awkwardness in Rune’s celebrations is rarely present in his game. He possesses the kind of easy power and timing that is rarely seen on the ATP Tour. He can fire plus-one winners even after deep returns, or blast a forehand comet while moving backwards. He can slide into shots from both wings and often uses drop shots to maintain a layer of unpredictability in conjunction with his heavy groundstrokes. He moves beautifully. His game is really not dissimilar to Alcaraz’s.

And how devastating it can be when it’s on. In that Paris Masters final last year, Rune beat Djokovic from a set down (Novak loses from a set up about as often as someone praises Daniil Medvedev for having an enormous forehand), saving multiple break points in a tense final game. I remember watching that game, and how Djokovic locked down, pounding the back of the court with returns and sending Rune sprinting outside the doubles alley with a scything angled forehand. But as it wore on, I noticed that Djokovic was leaking errors when he had break point to force a tiebreak. After a few of them went by, thanks to both Djokovic’s mistakes and Rune’s clutch winners, I found myself thinking something I never had before, something I didn’t even feel when I watched Nadal beat Djokovic at Roland-Garros last year: I knew Djokovic was going to lose the match before he actually did.

Djokovic’s marathon semifinal with Stefanos Tsitsipas, which went to a third-set tiebreak, probably played a role. He certainly looked sapped of energy at times in the decider against Rune, not just in losing a break lead at 3-1, but in dropping serve again at 5-all. If you wanted to blame that draining match with Tsitsipas for Djokovic’s loss, I wouldn’t disagree with you.

At the same time, some of the credit has to go to the man on the other side of the net. Rune didn’t give Djokovic any reliable patterns of play to work with. Djokovic could win points through sheer brilliance, as he does, but he didn’t have that one shot to count on — Djokovic didn’t have a weak backhand to pick at, his offense was countered by strong defense, his own defense was met by patient attacking play. And in that last game, Rune’s pressure finally proved decisive, as Djokovic came to net behind a sub-par approach shot and botched a volley.

Tennis TV seemed to be fully aboard the Rune train, ranking the Paris final as the best ATP match of 2022. (It was not.) But you can see how it’s possible, if you only look at Rune at his best, that he could be a Golden Boy, too. His ceiling is undeniably sky-scraping. There are no elements in his game that scream to be fixed like Hubert Hurkacz’s forehand or Tsitsipas’s backhand. Despite a few weird self-sabotages in big moments, it’s obvious that Rune does not fear pressure, nor any particular opponent.

So it’s safe to say that Rune is going to be around for a while. He’s already drawing some comparisons to young Djokovic — an extremely skilled player… who the tour didn’t seem to especially need. Even after the long-delayed Djokodal retirement, the ATP seems like it’s going to be in safe hands. There’s the headliner in Alcaraz and the rival in Jannik Sinner. Felix Auger-Aliassime and Frances Tiafoe seem more than capable of interfering with that duopoly on their best days, even if they can’t deliver in the consistency department yet. Daniil Medvedev will probably be a factor on hard courts until his lanky tentacles give way at age 40, and Tsitsipas is a constant threat on the clay. It’s not as if the next chapter of men’s tennis is starved for characters, and for that reason it’s difficult to see exactly where Rune fits in — maybe everywhere, if he becomes good enough, but maybe nowhere.

To beat the point into the ground, the timing of Rune’s rise might lead to a portion of fans dismissing him even as his relevance makes itself impossible to ignore. Being the heel isn’t easy. While dealing with legions of fans who didn’t especially want him around didn’t stop Djokovic from winning, it did lead to all kinds of ridiculous narratives about his legacy. Many tennis fans have, intentionally or not, attempted to saddle Djokovic’s achievements with an asterisk — first questioning whether he could ever be the greatest given Federer and Nadal’s elevated popularity, then seeming to concede that he was the greatest but adding that no one actually cared. Even the media would dabble in these narratives, trying to hammer Djokovic into the outline of the role they’d cast him in rather than letting him be what he actually was.

My concern for Rune is that through his teenage antics, he’s enabled the tennis sphere to form an opinion of him that may not ever significantly change. And look, it’s entirely possible that I’m being too cynical. Rune is 19; he’s likely not even 10% of the way through his career yet. But tennis fans are often reluctant to change their minds. Roger Federer has been “poetry in motion” since Day One; his fighting spirit has always been “underrated” despite the 24 times he’s won from match point down. Grigor Dimitrov could unexpectedly reel off a couple big titles and the casual masses would probably still see him as an athletic freak who is somewhat of an underachiever. The U.S. Open crowd took years to forgive Djokovic after he dared to cross them even lightly in 2008. How much are audiences, outside diehard Rune fans, going to care about Rune’s evolution? It’s not his fault, far from it, but given all the other figures on tour — heck, even from his generation — Rune is not exactly a character that fans have been clamoring for.

The discourse about Rune lately has been more about whether a heel is good for the sport than whether he actually is a heel. Though most people seem to think the controversy Rune generates is a plus, I wonder how much he will be able separate himself from that controversy — if that’s even what he wants — in the coming years. Whether he’s capable of wearing some different hats or not, the heel might be the only role open to him right now.


Published by Owen

Owen Lewis has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog ( in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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