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Column: Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune lost but won U.S. Open hearts against Novak Djokovic

Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune and Novak Djokovic meet at the net.
Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune, left, and Novak Djokovic meet at the net after Djokovic won their first-round match at the US Open on Tuesday in New York.
(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune walked out to the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday night carrying a blue Ikea tote bag and the sympathies of tennis fans everywhere.

The 18-year-old Dane, ranked 145th in the world, drew the unfortunate assignment of facing No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the first round of the U.S. Open, surely destined to become a footnote to Djokovic’s pursuit of a calendar Grand Slam and a record 21st men’s Slam singles title. A baseball cap jammed backward on his head and a tentative smile on his face, Rune looked more like a ballboy than a legitimate challenger to Djokovic’s steely nerves and dominant all-court game. Djokovic seemed to reaffirm that when he barged through the first set and lost only one game.

But the kid from Copenhagen, a former junior world No. 1, showed no fear. Why should he? He knew he had nothing to lose and all the respect in the world to gain by putting up a respectable fight against Djokovic — and he did that and more in the second set.

Finding energy and life, Rune walloped the ball, moved Djokovic around, made Djokovic sweat and lose his serving rhythm. By the time they reached the tiebreaker, fans in the stadium were infatuated. “Roooone!” they crooned in a collective love call, and he responded by winning the tiebreaker and the set when Djokovic sent a forehand flying long. He pumped his fist. A star had been born, and it was glorious to see and hear.

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“I never felt anything like this. It was unbelievable feeling staying there,” Rune said. “I tried to give the crowd something, fight for every point, be pumped and everything. I mean, the crowd was unbelievable. I mean, I couldn’t have asked for more. I never tried anything like this.

“It was a pretty sick feeling.”

No. 1 seed Ashleigh Barty clawed her way through her first-round match and No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev posted a solid win Tuesday at the U.S. Open.

Sadly, Rune’s bright light faded quickly, dimmed by an onset of debilitating leg cramps. He bent over or crouched in obvious distress, barely able to move at times. Massages from a physiotherapist didn’t help. The crowd fell silent, its worry mixing with disappointment. They shared his pain, having adopted him as an underdog and as one of their own even though few of them had heard of him before they saw him Tuesday.

Djokovic, impassive, moved in for the kill. He got it, keeping his Slam hopes alive with a 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-1 victory that felt hollow because Rune was unable to continue the mad, wonderful charge he had mounted in the second set. Even Djokovic acknowledged he couldn’t fully enjoy the triumph that was his 22nd in a row in Grand Slam play.

“Look, it’s tough to talk about third and fourth set because he barely moved,” Djokovic said after improving his record to 16-0 in U.S. Open first-round matches.

“My side, I started great. Played a really, really, good first set. After that, I don’t know, I was 4-3 serving in the second set. Everything was working well, but then I just lost the first serve. Very low percentage of first serves. Credit to him for fighting. He had the crowd behind him. It was tough to play in my first match, even though I had till tonight tons of experience playing on this court, for him it was the first one.

“Still, you get nerves. You still are feeling a little bit rusty at the beginning. Yeah, obviously I’m pleased with the way I finished the match. Again, it was not a fair battle, so to say, on the court with his unfortunate injury and cramping.”

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For one exciting, entertaining set, anything seemed possible for Rune.

Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune returns a shot during the first round of the US Open.
Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune returns a shot during the first round of the US Open on Tuesday in New York.
(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

“Playing against Novak on Arthur Ashe is probably one of the dream come true. To be able to win one set as well was great,” he said. “I had high beliefs in myself throughout the whole match. First set, I thought the score was pretty easy for him, but I thought it was a pretty good level of tennis for both. Unfortunately, my fitness let me down.”

The cramps started early in the third set.

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“From there on was tough. I knew if I had to win, I really had to fight for every point,” Rune said. “With my body at this point, it was impossible.”

Still, he said he never considered retiring.

Naomi Osaka won her opening match at the U.S. Open, and she is still finding her way forward as she sheds the doubts that affected her mental well-being.

“I never want to stop matches. I want to complete them. I want to try to see if I can find solution,” he said. “Against a player like Novak, it’s tough if you can’t move 100%. Even if you move 100%, you’re not sure you’re going to beat him. It’s tough if you have no legs.”

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If you didn’t love him enough by now, here’s one more reason. That Ikea bag he carried instead of toting an equipment company’s latest product or a luxe, designer creation? He has no sponsorship tie that obligates him to use it. He simply likes it. “I think it’s a nice bag. I can have all my drinks there and bananas. It just suits me well to go on court,” he said.

Playing on the show court at the U.S. Open suited him too. “He’s going to come back stronger and I’m sure we’re going to see a lot of him in the future,” Djokovic said. Next time, we can all hope, Rune won’t have leg cramps slowing him down and those love songs will ring out again.


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