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Tennis Baby Beats Novak Djokovic Again

Holger Rune celebrates in a match against Novak Djokovic
Antonietta Baldassarre/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images

As a chubby and asthmatic kid I did tae kwon do, and during tests to advance to the next belt, we had to break wooden boards and cinder blocks. I was clumsy, but my instructors gave me a precious tip: Before you strike, envision your foot passing through the air behind the board, your hand touching the floor beyond the cinder block. Push all the way through to the empty space.

Generations of tennis players have seen Novak Djokovic's defense as an impenetrable cinder block. Most of them have stood at the baseline confident that they would bounce, bruised and scraped, off its surface. Then they played the actual tennis and confirmed all their self-defeating suspicions. Holger Rune, the ornery 20-year-old manchild, sees the floor beyond the block. He whines, howls, and fusses, but he never seems to lack in self-belief, perhaps because he's too young to have internalized the mythos about his opponent. In Wednesday's quarterfinal at the Rome Masters, the seventh-seeded Rune defeated the top-seeded Djokovic for the second time in six months, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, confirming his position a half-step behind Carlos Alcaraz as the most significant young talent in the men's game.

For both upsets, Rune found himself at a Masters 1000 event playing six-time (and defending) champion Djokovic. In Paris they fought on quick indoor hard courts, and in Rome on sluggish wet clay courts. While the match in November was more dramatic for scoreboard reasons, today's match was filled with psychodrama. Both players embraced the opportunity to light up chair umpire Mo Lahyani: Rune for an unfavorable line call, Djokovic for the slow and flamboyant announcement of the score.

"It's always the umpire that makes me look like a bad guy," Rune complained, as his coaches pleaded with him to chill out. "Do you get punished for your mistakes?" Djokovic had his own questions for the beleaguered umpire: "What's the drama of waiting between English and Italian?" he asked. "Why do you call the score for 20 seconds? Just call the score, god's sake."

Both players also called for medical attention in the tense second set. Djokovic, who looked to be physically struggling, swallowed some painkillers during a changeover at 2-1. Rune, in a creative maneuver, screamed the word "physio" at the umpire until he got his right leg examined while trailing 2-5.

Between the tantrums and the treatment, they found the time to play some pretty good tennis. Rune's rare blend of foot speed and groundstroke power served him well on the cold damp clay: difficult to hit the ball past, while hitting firmly through the court himself. A court-level view offers a sense of how slow the court was playing, as every ball seems to give up on its hopes and dreams once it struck the mud:

The younger player's aggression won him the first set in 39 minutes. Rain, which has been meddling with this tournament all week, ramped up to unplayable levels. With Rune serving at 6-2, 4-5, 0-30 in the second set, the umpire suspended the match for an hour. When the tennis resumed, Djokovic immediately won two points to break Rune and take the set. Rather than let Djokovic get comfortable, Rune ripped off the first four games of the third set and carried that lead to the finish. Despite the holistic messiness of the encounter, the defending champ offered his usual gracious handshake in defeat.

In a post-match interview on Tennis Channel, Rune said he won by "being brave and following the ball forward," a testament to his appetite for high-risk shots and steadiness when finishing points at the net. He said that Djokovic successfully forced him back behind the baseline in the second set, but he tried to secure more aggressive court positioning in the third. Hopefully Rune has faith in his own abilities as a problem-solver, because there's no free coaching coming his way. In the presser, Djokovic was asked what advice he would offer Rune for his career. "I am going to ask him tips. He beat me twice that we played against each other. I have no tips for him—so far he's doing very well." Sometimes the cinder block wants to know how to get tougher.

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