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Passing the torch: earnest Holger Rune prepared to carry Danish flag

Passing the torch: earnest Holger Rune prepared to carry Danish flag

With Caroline Wozniacki hanging up her racquet, the hopes of a continued legacy shift to the 16-year-old—now embarking in his first season as a professional.

As Holger Rune digs into his first full season as a professional, Denmark will be looking for their highly touted prospect to seamlessly turn the page.

For nearly 15 years, Caroline Wozniacki carried the torch, representing her country with grace and game-changing results when she became world No. 1, and later brought home the 2018 Australian Open trophy. The recently retired 29-year-old is home-grown inspiration that a player, from any nation, can summit the sport with a sound work ethic, evolving enthusiasm and durable mind.

There’s no shortage of passion beating in Rune’s chest, either. A self-described fighter that goes all in when he wants something, the Copenhagen native is all heart, full of unwavering resolve—much like his cherished countrywoman. He plays aggressively, is quick around the court, is keen to come forward, has a sturdy head on his shoulders and studies the game meticulously by watching as many matches as possible.

Photo: Mouratoglou Academy

"In tennis, you can’t get perfect. You can always see the perfect, but can’t get it," Rune tells Tennis.com. "You can always improve something. That’s also what I like about tennis. It’s definitely my favorite sport. I want to keep improving the small, specific things that can get better."

Rune’s foray into the sport began like many athlete narratives do: copying a sibling by tagging along to practice. Sister Alma was first to pick up a racquet, and the two have maintained a close bond, speaking often when Holger is on the road. Like most teenagers, his phone and iPad are everyday staples. He is outgoing, confident, approachable, and by his own admission, talks a lot—generally the person to strike up a conversation. Now, the demonstrative 16-year-old is in the initial stages of pursuing a career on the ATP tour after a decorated junior stint that included reaching No. 1, winning the 2019 Roland Garros title and triumphing at the ITF Junior Finals.

"I can take a lot from last year. I played a lot of good junior tournaments, winning two of my biggest titles ever," says Rune. "Getting experience on the tour, playing a Davis Cup match and winning against a No. 250 in the world was a great experience. Winning my first Challenger match was great also."

Photo: AP Images

While having a go-to weapon is a valuable resource in pressure situations, shot making is arguably not the primary difference maker in separating those who successfully make the jump from the junior to pro ranks. Margins between two players’ forehands may be minimal, but tolerance levels on when to pull the trigger on those forehands are considerable. It’s a quality that can be attributed to having a secure framework for managing emotion, one Rune has addressed by working with a mental coach to help sustain courage in selecting the right shot at the right time.

The investment paid off in Paris, when after missing out on two championship points and dropping a second set tiebreaker to American Toby Kodat, a rain delay permitted Rune to consult with his mental coach and hit the reset button. The result? Rune played his brand of tennis to post a dominant 6-0 deciding set.

"We were like, if we can take it on as early as possible, to be mentally really strong, I’m always going to be better than the other guys in my age group. If you wait, it can be too late sometimes," believes Rune. "If you start early learning how to behave in tough conditions and to fight off not nice situations, it’s better. That was what we thought about. It’s very important to me, so I can stay calm when playing matches, so I don’t stress out and get tight."

Photos: Aneke Rune

As the 2010s came to a close, Rune witnessed first-hand what lies behind a champion. At the 2019 ATP Finals, he was invited to spar as a practice partner, and traded strokes with Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev and eventual winner Stefanos Tsitsipas. Rune with a hit with all five, as each went on to win the match that directly followed a practice session with the Dane.

In December, Rune traveled with Patrick Mouratoglou’s Academy to Boca Raton, FL for a training block that included Coco Gauff, Christopher Eubanks and 23-time major champion Serena Williams. Through these two invaluable opportunities, Rune drew a noteworthy conclusion that should serve him marvelously on his journey.

"Roger, Novak and Serena, they are older than Tsitsipas, Zverev and Gauff. You can see how different they practice," assesses Rune.

"They know what they have to practice, and they go in and practice that 100 percent. It takes 30 minutes to an hour until they feel good. In London, I also learned a lot with how they behave off court and what they did to prepare for their matches. To share the court and hit the same ball with them was an unbelievable experience."

Photo: Mouratoglou Academy

Coached by Lars Christensen, Rune also turns to Mouratoglou for mentorship. The Frenchman, who has guided Williams since June 2012, is an influential voice in Rune’s head.  

"When he comes on my court and tells me a few things, I of course always listen to him because he’s a great coach,” says Rune. "When he steps on the court, he’s very focused and looking for small details that can get better. He always tells me how I can get better. I’m blessed to be a part of the Mouratoglou team."

His initial goal for the end of 2020 was to reach the Top 300 and establish his game on the ATP Challenger tour, until an encouraging conversation with Zverev in London prompted Rune to revise his target, now set at cracking the Top 100. Inside that elite group lies a fast-rising 18-year-old Rune sees a bit himself in.

"I think Jannik Sinner and I have a little bit of similarities. We both have good strokes, move well, we serve well, volley well. He’s an all-around player."

Photo: Mouratoglou Academy

Rune may not be able to achieve perfection on the court, but with an outlook like the one in place, the passionate competitor is armed for the challenges that await in becoming Denmark’s next beloved champion. After all, it takes one to know one.

"I think he's a very hard-working person," Wozniacki said in Melbourne. "So I see a bright future for him."