Danish wunderkind Holger Rune now features among the elite in men’s tennis.
Defeating Novak Djokovic in a Masters final, cracking the top 10 and playing in a Grand Slam quarterfinal provide ample proof.
But on the eve of AO 2023, Rune, wearing an ‘I love Oz’ t-shirt, reflected on his visit to the Australian Open four years ago.
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A 15-year-old back then — indeed he is still only 19 now — it marked the first time the native of Gentofte just north of Copenhagen ever competed at a junior major.
“I have very cute and good memories,” he told ausopen.com. “I didn’t know what to expect at all. Everything was so clean and so good. The courts were unbelievable, ball boys, everything was incredible, so professional from what I was used to.”
One day during practice, Rune even noticed Rafael Nadal casting an eye in his direction.
“I was practising beside Rafa and he was looking a little bit,” Rune said. “I was like, ‘Oh, Rafa's actually watching me.’ And it was quite cool. I remember that.”
Starstruck, perhaps, and understandably so. Now Rune is a peer of Nadal and players including nine-time Australian Open winner Djokovic, who he has practised with in Monte Carlo and elsewhere.
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“I don’t see it as I did back then because now I have the chance to play them in a match,” said Rune.
“But at the same time, I really admire Rafa, Novak, Roger [Federer]. It’s quite incredible as to what they have done and what they’re still doing.”
Rune won the French Open juniors in 2019 and has kept on climbing. He is Denmark’s leading light in tennis after Caroline Wozniacki stayed atop the women’s game for more than a decade.
She became the country’s first Grand Slam singles winner in Melbourne in 2018, outlasting Simona Halep in a thriller.
Wozniacki’s work ethic and immense desire to succeed were well known, and Rune follows the same path.
He contested more than 100 matches at all levels in 2021, the year he made his Grand Slam debut in the top flight and nabbed a set off Djokovic at the US Open.
In 2022, he contested a Challenger final in Italy and played a qualifying match in Monte Carlo on the same day. He triumphed in both matches and weeks later earned a first top-10 win, over Alexander Zverev, on the way to his first title in Munich.
The momentum carried through to Roland Garros, where he defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in a hefty upset. Tsitsipas had made the final 12 months earlier, pushing Djokovic to five sets.
While a bump followed — at one stretch losing seven matches in a row — the feisty Rune recovered. And with a bang.
He ended the term by going 19-2, his title at the Paris Masters the exclamation mark. His game is one of power but with sprinklings of variety and finesse.
“I'm very hungry all the time,” said Rune. “And I just want to win more, and I have big dreams ahead of me. I haven't achieved them yet. Some small dreams, but the big dream is, I have chance to make it happen here.”
Presumably Rune means winning a Grand Slam title.
There is a while to go but Rune progressed to the third round by handling the serve-and-volley game of Maxime Cressy 7-5 6-4 6-4 on Thursday.
He was broken just once — in his opening service game. Facing Cressy’s powerful delivery is not easy, nor is it simple to maintain focus in the midst of a net rushing onslaught.
Mum Aneke and coach Lars Christensen are ever present in his player box, and Rune formally added Patrick Mouratoglou to his team last year.
DRAW: Australian Open 2023 men's singles
He knew Mouratoglou quite well from training at his academy in the south of France when younger.
“He kind of put his belief in me by inviting me to the academy, letting me stay there,” said Rune.“ And so that was already a big thing.”
If Nadal, Federer and Djokovic are the behemoths on court, Mouratoglou is a giant in coaching terms having teamed with Serena Williams for a decade, then Halep.
Prior to that, among other collaborations, he mentored 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis.
“Everything he says, there is history behind it and there's power behind it,” said Rune, who meets free-swinging left-hander Ugo Humbert on Saturday.
“It's really cool to get tips and stuff from him because he has so much experience behind it and he’s been there with Serena, making history with her, winning so many Grand Slams.”
Rune has already made history despite his tender age but does not intend to stop.