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Tennis

Holger Rune Is The New Baby Of Men’s Tennis

Holger Rune holds the trophy in Paris.
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Carlos Alcaraz’s 2022 season was one long coronation, culminating in a U.S. Open win that made him the youngest world No. 1 in history and the best spectacle in the sport. But he wasn’t the 19-year-old who thrived last week at the Paris Masters. Carlitos actually retired from his quarterfinal match with an abdominal strain, but not before he was outplayed by his opponent Holger Rune, a Dane born just a week earlier than him.

Rune, who has been roughly as infamous for on-court episodes as for solid results, had heated up considerably over the last month. Nothing he’d done to date indicated he was capable of his title run in Paris, which ran through a heap of top-10 players and ended in a cold-blooded 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 defeat of Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final. When Rune held up that Tolkein-esque tree trophy, he became the second teen in the top 10. He also bent a simple narrative. A year that mostly widened the gulf between Alcaraz and the rest of his age cohort instead concludes with the enticing possibility of future rivalries.

Paris was Rune’s fourth final in four tournaments, the end of a 19-2 blitz to close out the year. His path to the title in Paris was perhaps the most difficult in recent memory. Rune’s first opponent was the only one not ranked in the top 10—and it was still a three-time major champ. Stan Wawrinka, washed but still dangerous, got closest of any foe all week, holding three match points before Rune won in a third-set tiebreak.

In the second and third rounds Rune ushered out top-10 players Hubert Hurkacz and Andrey Rublev, both in straight sets. In the quarterfinal he faced de jure world No. 1 Alcaraz, who he soundly outhit in the first set before a shock retirement during the second set tiebreak. (Alcaraz has since withdrawn from next week’s year-end finals as well, putting a wrap on his year.) In the semifinal, Rune downed Félix Auger-Aliassime, who was at the time in the best form of any player on tour, carrying a 16-match win streak, including a win over Rune just last week in Basel.

Only the de facto world No. 1 Djokovic, technically ranked No. 8 and on a 13-match win streak, stood in Rune’s way. Djokovic sprinted through the first set in 36 minutes, and history spoke in his favor: He’s won all 30 previous Masters finals in which he won the first set. But Rune, whose balances high-risk offense and pesky defense, took the second set, proving that his backhand was worthy of cross-court exchanges with the sturdiest backhand in history. Rune broke serve late in the third, opening up a chance to serve for the championship. It was an unbearably tense service game, featuring six break-point opportunities for Djokovic, one of the rallies of the season, a nervy double-fault on match points, a couple of miscues, and some perfect execution. Despite a tinge of dubious shot selection from Djokovic, all credit is due to Rune, who was rather visibly freaking out in the home stretch, and later said he felt “my heart was almost in my brain.”

“I’m not happy that you beat me, but on the other hand I’m happy for you because I like your personality,” Djokovic said at the trophy ceremony. It’s not obvious that this opinion of Rune’s personality is widely shared. During a post-match handshake last week, Wawrinka offered Rune some elder wisdom: “My advice to you is that you stop acting like a baby on court. OK?”

It wasn’t clear what behavior in this particular match rankled Wawrinka, but the “baby” assessment is not unwarranted. It would be co-signed by Casper Ruud, who beat Rune in a spicy quarterfinal at the French Open this year, which kicked off a strange Scandinavian beef. Rune, who’d been berating his mother and team all match, came to the net and offered a dead-fish handshake in the advanced stages of decomposition. Ruud could only shake his head in disgust:

Then it was Rune’s turn to wrangle the moral high ground. He claimed after the match that Ruud had accosted him the locker room, and shouted “Ja!” in his face. Ruud’s father denied the accusation; Rune’s mother said the father couldn’t have known because the father wasn’t where it happened. Ruud himself declared it a lie and said he hoped the lying wouldn’t happen again. The fuming and shouting remains a staple of Rune’s behavior, though his most serious misstep was in June 2021, when he yelled gay slurs during a semifinal match at the Biella Challenger. Rune won the tournament and was fined 1500 euros, roughly a quarter of his total prize money.

If there’s a relative lack of excitement around Rune, compared to Alcaraz, it might have something to do with these factors, and an undeniably severe case of Resting Brat Face. There’s bound to be an irritating heel in every generation, and he might be ready to fill that vacancy.