In September, two months after reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, having earlier in the year successfully defended a title in Munich and reached the final of two Masters 1000 tournaments (Monte Carlo and Rome), Holger Rune, world No 6, was facing a player ranked more than 100 places below him, and yet a seventh consecutive defeat stared back.
When Thiago Monteiro won the third set of the Davis Cup rubber 6-2, Rune, who along with Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner is one of the most exciting prospects in men’s tennis, looked physically and mentally spent. He went on to lose three of his next four matches to complete a dire run of late-summer form: 11 matches, 10 losses.
Though the ship was somewhat steadied at the Swiss Open in his first back-to-back wins since SW19, the signs remained ominous last week when Rune set about defending his biggest career title at the Paris Masters – the tour’s final prestigious event before the season-ending ATP Finals. But the 20-year-old’s quality performance, in which he battled in a tight, three-set quarter-final loss to the eventual champion, Novak Djokovic, marked a turning point, and his resurgent showing in a thrilling encounter – a rematch of last year’s final – was a highlight of Paris-Bercy.
Another man shared the spotlight: Rune’s new coach, Boris Becker. The legendary Becker – six-times grand slam winner, broom-closet progeniture practitioner, former mainstay of BBC’s Wimbledon coverage – is relishing his own comeback after serving a “brutal” eight months in a UK prison for bankruptcy fraud. In Becker and Rune, two of the strongest and most chaotic personalities in tennis cohere, a double act of rascals.
Rune both was and wasn’t in the market for a new coach. The man who had sat fist-pumping courtside at the Paris Masters last year, Patrick Mouratoglou, departed the Rune camp after the player’s first-round US Open exit, amid talk from Rune’s mother, Aneke, of “ego clashes” between Mouratoglou and her son’s long-term mentor Lars Christensen.
Mouratoglou, perhaps defined as the opposite of a shrinking violet, has returned to support his previous employer, Simona Halep, who is fighting doping charges that Mouratoglou this week said he feels responsible for. Rune’s mother had expressed a preference for the more low-key but highly respected (and scandal-free) Christensen, who has been working with the family for 14 years.
Christensen has spent weeks rehabilitating Rune’s back, a recurring and painful bulging disc issue, that copious amounts of Ibuprofen and tweaks to serving technique failed to fix. Along with the internal squabbles, the chronic injury seemed to be behind the catastrophic series of results. (Other fans, probably unfairly, blamed his budding relationship with a glamorous model girlfriend.)
But it’s the nature of sport that players have fallow periods. Before his true breakthrough at the end of last year, Rune went on a run of seven losses, which he managed to snap only by playing a lackadaisical Benoît Paire; his one win during this year’s dismal run was against Felix Auger-Aliassime, another young gun having a torrid time who has since managed to turn things around.
The most encouraging aspect of last week, perhaps more so than the wins and the freedom of movement, was the return of Rune’s fighting spirit: the frequent celebratory shake of the racket and gritted teeth after firing backhand down-the-line winners or closing the net with clever back-behind volleys; the creative flair that fans know the prodigy is capable of, but which had been lacking recently.
There was even a new look. As part of a Becker-mandated strategy to limit “things that interfered”, gone was Rune’s trusty backwards cap and set of chains. He took to the court in a funereal all-black ensemble, Johnny Cash in sneakers. (The cap, however, has since returned.)
Djokovic, who worked with Becker through a highly successful 2013-2016, said he had spotted his former coach playing chess with his new charge – something Becker introduced in their own partnership to promote “focus and mental clarity”.
The German is pleased to be back on tour, telling Eurosport he was “proud” to have been asked, and that he relates to Rune’s “commitment and temperament on the court”. Becker, of course, has known the pressures of stardom at an early age; he remains the youngest male winner of Wimbledon (aged 17).
Rune has praised Becker, whom he first met while a promising junior, for helping him “reverse a negative spiral”, saying he has made “several adaptations” in his game. “I’ve come back from almost nowhere, from a period where I was losing all the time in the first round to a big match like this against Novak, close to my best level”, he said.
Now the pair, along with Rune’s fitness instructor, Lapo Becherini, will prepare for the ATP Finals which begin on Sunday in Turin. Rune, whose revival saw him claim the last qualifying spot, will make his debut at the event after being an unused alternate last year. To claim the title may be a step too far, too soon in the rebuild, but Rune will be hopeful of ending the season on a high
There is one note of concern. Due to his fraud conviction, Becker is currently barred from travelling to the UK under a deportation order, leaving the question of his Wimbledon attendance up in the air, but the mood otherwise is good. One of the sport’s most electric new talents is back. Just as long as he’s allowed to keep the cap.