Midtown Manhattan on a summer weekday–with more and more people going back to in-office work–is as daunting a place as ever. It's hot. It stinks. It's crowded. Yet, some twenty floors above the fracas, there’s an inversion; the air is still charged with energy, yet it’s the exciting kind, coursing with the New York spark that’s often referred to by performers, athletes, tourists, and more. On a balcony of the hotel he'll spend, hopefully, the next two-plus weeks in, 19-year-old tennis star Holger Rune is buzzing.
“At the end of last year, I thought, ‘ok, let’s do this, let’s get into the top 100,” says Rune. It’s the Thursday before the Open’s kickoff, and he’s wearing a black sweatshirt (even though temperatures have slunk into the 90’s), black athletic shorts, perforated red Nike sneakers and mid-calf white socks. At these early stages of his career, Rune is known–and sometimes condemned–for his fiery comportment when playing, yet up here, above the maelstrom, he is milder mannered. “I knew that I had the level to get there, but that it was going to be tough, and that I had to compete hard for every point I played. I willed myself to do that.” The will worked, and then some: So far in 2022, he’s reached a career high ranking of 26 in the world, and is seeded 28 at the Open, which began Monday. He had his first tour win in Munich, Germany in May, and reached the quarterfinals of the French Open in June.
Copenhagen-born Rune started playing tennis at age six by tagging along to his sister Alma’s junior tournaments. She was the first in the family to pick up a racquet. (Alma, who has come to New York to support her brother and who is waiting inside so that the both of them can head downtown to a meeting at Nike, one of Holger’s sponsors, is now a model–the Runes have good genes). “I quickly became obsessed,” says Rune. “I tried to imitate all the big players. I played with a bandana, trying to look like Roger. That’s how it started.” Aneke Rune, Holger’s mother and now manager, started to take him to weekly clinics and contests.
He showed prowess in his progress, and soon moved beyond regional competitions to a full European junior circuit. Rune says that, while the apparatus for tennis success existed in Denmark, he found that the “culture” wasn’t as robust as in places like France and Spain–when he started playing in these countries, the “level was much higher,” and very welcome. He enjoys a challenge and a battle–Rune would reach the number one ranking in the world for juniors. He’s been in ascent mode ever since.
Rune’s physical game is distinct, even often dazzling. He seems to blend Federer-esque traditionalism with Nadal-style power and pop, and he does so intensely. Even in practices, clips of which he’ll upload to Instagram or TikTok, Rune looks like he’s competing; there’s a tenacity apparent, and part of his flair is to be expressive. “It’s important to show what you’re feeling,” he says. He doesn’t like to be “stone-faced” on court. Shot-wise, he has one of the best looking forehands on the tour, though, he says, “when I’m hitting the ball well, I’d say my backhand down the line is probably my most special.” “With my coach,” Rune adds, “we’ve been trying to take the best things from other players to build myself.”
It was at last year’s U.S. Open that Rune landed in front of a larger audience. He was a qualifier facing a tough task: A first round match in Arthur Ashe stadium against the top seed Novak Djokovic, who has withdrawn from this year’s event due to rules around players’ COVID-19 inoculation status (Djokovic has not, and will not, receive vaccine for the coronavirus). Rune lost, but took a set off Djokovic, and won’t soon forget the experience: “There’s just something magic about that court.”
Rune has had a number of major wins since, including victories over Alexander Zverev (currently injured, and not participating at the 2022 Open) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (with whom he recently played doubles at Cincinnati's Western & Southern Open). He’s also had a few setbacks. In 2021, the ATP opened an inquiry into derogatory, self-directed language used on court, for which Rune apologized after. In 2022, at Roland-Garros, he fell to Casper Ruud. Despite it being his best major result, headlines focused on Rune’s temper, and a brief handshake at the end that had Ruud shaking his head in disapproval.
Tennis fans, especially those in New York, tend to excuse tantrums and outbursts–in many cases, spicy temperaments can help fuel breakthrough performances. Australian Nick Kyrgios is famous for his litany of antics and expletives, yet he reached his first major final at this year’s Wimbledon; John McEnroe built an entire brand on his temper (McEnroe is currently enjoying a new role as a narrator on the Netflix series Never Have I Ever–he makes frequent reference to his own hotheadedness). These two, and others, had to learn and hone the best ways to channel their anger. Rune is figuring it out, too.
“We all learn,” he says. “You have to go through mistakes. If you’re perfect at age 19, it’s no fun.” He’ll also say: “My mom always said to me that I should play tennis with passion. I really keep this in mind when I step on the court. [When I was little,] if I lost, I was crying for an hour. It’s hard, especially when you want it so bad. But when things don’t go your way, you just have to accept it. It’s not the end of the world. Even though it feels like that, sometimes. I think I’m getting better at this.”
What happens at this U.S. Open remains to be seen, but Rune is enjoying the moment. The night before speaking to Esquire, he and Alma ordered UberEats to their suite so they could enjoy the nighttime view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. He mentions he’s close to his family, and likes spending free time with them, especially since relocating to Monaco from Denmark. He’ll head down to Nike afterward to see his new on-court fit. And then, when the time comes, he’ll be ready: “I go into a mode. A match mode, I tell myself. I get very focused and very energetic, in a way. No matter what, I’m going to go big and go full.”
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