Even with the glorious ‘Big Three’ era winding down, men’s tennis remains in a robust and compelling state.
But while much of the current focus rests on the rapid ascent of Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner – and their increasingly regular, thrilling battles – Todd Woodbridge believes one player is being underestimated.
"Holger Rune should be added to this list. It's like he's saying: 'hold on just a minute, I am in this equation, and you need to start talking about me'," Woodbridge, a 22-time major doubles champion, said of the Dane.
"I see him as the game’s new antagonist; I think he's bringing really big energy to matches that are providing another story within tournaments. He's an in-your-face player who is working his tail off.”
Woodbridge’s praise is understandable, given Rune’s own explosive rise.
Prior to turning 20 last week, he had already cracked the top 10, reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal and won a Masters 1000 title.
RUNE RISING: Danish teen enjoying major breakthrough
He very nearly won a second at the recent Monte Carlo Masters – narrowly losing to Andrey Rublev – but rebounded strongly at his very next tournament, defending his title in Munich for a fourth ATP trophy.
He has beaten 11 top-10 opponents – including Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alcaraz and Sinner – and is 5-1 against the top five. He is currently at a peak ranking of world No.7.
It’s an extraordinary resume for someone so young, who only played their first tour-level match in 2021.
And it had been made possible by a strikingly complete game, intense competitiveness and thirst for hard work.
“I've been incredibly impressed watching his physical development; the building of the legs and the body to be robust, to be able to absorb everything,” Woodbridge said.
"Talent requires ticking many boxes. One of the key ones for me is, yes, he's a street-fighter with a will to win, but he has this work ethic which is making a huge difference and will be part of the reason he's going to continue being successful.
“Currently I don't see weaknesses; I only see opportunities to continue to make that better. What I love about him is that he's not scared to win; he's right in there and wants those victories.
“I've watched a lot of his practice clips and how he's working on the power and movement. It's really solid.”
Rune adds notable texture to the upper reaches of the game, given his on-court approach contrasts starkly with Alcaraz and Sinner.
Whereas Sinner remains ice-cool and composed, and Alcaraz radiates bouncy, positive energy, Rune is a combative, pugnacious force who frequently gets both crowds and opponents offside – which has led to some unforgettable moments and matches.
Woodbridge sees him as a fusion of two famous Australians.
“In essence, he's taken over the role of Nick Kyrgios in this generation,” Woodbridge said, “but he has this competitiveness and win-at-all-costs attitude, which is what Lleyton Hewitt had so much of.”
Love. No hate ❤️💛 @MutuaMadridOpen pic.twitter.com/6WB4M6ttjq— Holger Rune (@holgerrune2003) May 1, 2023
Rune’s big-match qualities were obvious, dating back to when he won the Roland Garros 2019 boys’ singles title and became the world No.1 junior that same year.
He transitioned quickly to the professional ranks; just over 18 months after debuting at tour level, he was reaching four straight ATP finals in late 2022.
The fourth of those was the Paris Masters, a groundbreaking week during which he overcame three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka in the first round, then consecutively beat five top-10 players, to win the biggest title of his career.
Making it more notable was the fact he out-fought the legendary Djokovic in that final, winning 7-5 in the third.
As impressed as he is by the Danish youngster, Woodbridge said challenges lay ahead.
"He looks for distraction in matches by antagonising his opponent. And at this point, it’s often to his detriment. He's going to have to learn to contain that better, because I think he makes it harder for himself sometimes,” Woodbridge said.
“(In the Roland Garros quarters last year) he annoyed Casper Ruud, and Ruud was flawless because of it. So that was a match he lost because of his behaviour, and some immaturity on his behalf in handling that big occasion.
"It's going to be about learning what his game style is, and how good he is tactically at implementing that as he progresses, because as we know, after 12 to 18 months, the tour starts to get the play-book on how to beat someone.
“He is going to have to start making those adjustments, because he is a targeted player now.”
Nevertheless, there is thrilling upside and plenty of room for growth.
Although Rune may have recently let slip some matches from winning positions – his Australian Open and Monte Carlo losses to Rublev spring to mind – Woodbridge believed his instinct to play aggressive, proactive tennis when nerves struck would stand him in good stead.
And while Tsitsipas once warned Rune was a burnout risk because he was “obsessed with tennis”, Woodbridge did not share the same concern.
“It's not unhealthy. It's a given you have to be that way,” Woodbridge said. “I've never seen any player become great who's not had that.”
There has been no sign of Rune slowing down in 2023.
He has built a 22-9 win-loss record and has excelled on clay, winning eight of his 10 matches in performances that bode well ahead of Roland Garros.
These are results that have helped him join Alcaraz and Sinner in the top eight, and together, the trio are among the youngest players ranked inside the top 100.
"We've had the Big Three, and this is the New Three,” Woodbridge said.
“I never doubted that we would get great new players along, but what I didn't expect is that we'd see this group of young players playing such high quality this early in their career. This is quality that guys play in their late 20s, but these guys are playing it in their late teens and early 20s already.
“That I didn't think we were going to see.”