As David Goffin tries to return to the upper echelon of the men’s game, he needs to look no further than his first two opponents at this week’s Masters 1000 event in Rome for inspiration.
After a significant knee injury, three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka has worked his way back into a position to be seeded at the upcoming French Open. And Juan Martin del Potro, Goffin’s second-round opponent, has been the king of the comeback over the course of his career due to health woes, with the most recent injury coming toward the end of 2018—his best season since 2009, when he won the US Open.
Goffin won a three-set battle against Wawrinka in the opener, but was unable to top del Potro, with the loss, 6-4, 6-2, dropping his record to 10-12 on the year. Currently ranked No. 23, will Goffin be able to make a return to the top 10 or will he be left on the outside looking in as a wave of veterans and youthful contenders threaten to keep him out?
This year, Goffin’s best performances have been a pair of semifinal finishes: Indoors in Marseille and another a couple of weeks ago on clay in Estoril. On both of those occasions, his runs were halted by the breakout performer of the early season, Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 20-year-old from Greece who actually went on to win both of those events.
Tsitsipas possesses all of the tools, it appears, that will enable him to be a mainstay near the top of the game for years to come. Daniil Medvedev, another young player that looks like a future member of the top 10 and Grand Slam champion, also notched an early-season win against Goffin, defeating him in the third round of the Australian Open. And Frances Tiafoe scored another win for the under-24 set against the Belgian, topping him at the Miami Open.
All three of those players were able to physically impose themselves upon Goffin, and have been posting career-shaping results so far in 2019, proving they’re worth the advance billing. Goffin, still only 28, didn’t have as rapid rise as them, having built his ranking through steadily consistent performances, culminating with a career-high ranking of No, 7 in the world in 2017, after reaching the most prestigious championship match of his career at the ATP Finals.
That season was full of ups and downs—particularly during the clay-court swing. He dropped a tight match to Rafael Nadal in the Monte Carlo semifinals, where a controversial call helped derail his momentum. Then at the French Open, he suffered a freak ankle injury in the third round when he tripped over a tarp at the back of the court. Returning during the summer hard-court swing, Goffin got hot post-US Open to qualify for London.
Early in 2018, it looked like he might be plagued by bad luck: In the semifinals in Rotterdam, he was forced to retire from the match when he was hit in the eye by a ball. That slowed his progress for about a month, but he came back strong on the clay, and went on to post some solid results on hard courts over the summer. However, elbow pain forced him to shut down his campaign in September.
Fighting his way back has been a slow and steady effort so far: Despite the below-.500 record, there’s reason for optimism: A win against 2016 French Open champion Wawrinka on clay is a good sign. Going into his match with del Potro, Goffin had a 3-1 lead in their head-to-head encounters. However, this Rome second-rounder was their first on clay and the Argentine was able to simply overpower him.
Goffin has reached the fourth round or better at Roland Garros three times in his career. More than likely in Paris this year, he’ll be drawn to face a member of the top 10 in the third round—maybe even del Potro or Tsitsipas. Both of those players present different aspects of the obstacles he’ll face as he tries to get back to where they are: the physically dominating presence and the hungry next-generation talent.
It will be a long road ahead, but some statement wins over the course of the next few weeks—with less pressure on him—could possibly put him back among the game’s elite.