David Goffin: The Quiet Belgian Making Some Noise
The giants have invaded men’s tennis and are here to stay. As evidence, the fact that no man under six-foot has won a Grand Slam since 2004 is telling. So too that at Wimbledon this year five of the eight men’s quarter-finalists were 6ft4in or above. This line-up didn’t even include Goliaths such as 6ft11in Ivo Karlovic, 6ft10in John Isner, 6ft8in Kevin Anderson, 6ft6in Sascha Zverev or 6ft6in Juan Martín del Potro.
It wasn’t always this way. A striking illustration of how the optimal tennis height has grown came at the opening ceremony of the inaugural Laver Cup in September. In the middle were Messrs Rod Laver, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg — a trio of legends who collectively amassed 29 grand slam singles titles — dwarfed by the current crop of behemoths beside them.
Such a shift in physicality has, inevitably, led to a shift in style. The pillars of the modern-game are a big forehand and an ever bigger serve. Taller players can deliver these strokes with more acute angles and can amplify power by making use of the full force of their body weight
In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, David Ferrer, who, at 5ft9in, spent almost a decade as the shortest member of tennis’ elite, had a grim forecast for his cohort: “I think players like me, around my height, are going to be extinct [in the next 5–10 years].”
This is why David Goffin is exceptional. Small in stature, this quiet Belgian is bucking the trend. At 5ft11in, he is currently the only player in the ATP top-20 under six-foot. He weighs just 68kg, making him arguably the best ‘pound-for-pound’ player on the planet.
He’s also a delight to watch, reminding us that amid the ‘wham bam’ nature of the modern game, there’s still room for subtlety and variety on the tennis court. With his opponents often dictating the course of a match — clocking winners but also piling up unforced errors — Goffin’s outstanding racquet skills can go unnoticed. But he’s a master at taking the ball early and redirecting it, a talent that requires tremendous dexterity and precision. His stinging, flat backhand perfectly complements his more heavily-spun, steady forehand. He has soft hands, a very decent serve and high tennis IQ.
Tennis is also a game of movement, and this is where Goffin has the advantage over his bigger peers. There is a lightness to his game as he moves his slight frame around elegantly, almost silently, skipping and tip-toeing across the court. No matter the surface, Goffin uses his movement to retrieve balls others wouldn’t reach, and attack balls others would simply let come to them.
Goffin came to prominence in 2012, courtesy of earning a lucky loser spot at Roland Garros. A few matches later he found himself leading his idol Roger Federer in the last 16. The Swiss eventually took charge, but Goffin had turned heads and displayed his talents.
Living up to that early promise, however, initially proved difficult. It seemed that he might be under-powered to thrive at the elite level as he spent many of the next 18 months alternating in a no man’s land between the Challenger Tour and the ATP World Tour.
It was in the summer of 2014 when his fortunes changed for the better, reeling off a hat-trick of Challenger titles and then a pair of ATP titles in Kitzbühel and Metz. Since, his trajectory has been upward. In 2015 he broke into the top-20 and compiled an unbeaten record to lead Belgium to a surprise Davis Cup final berth. In 2016 he reached his first grand slam quarter-final in Paris, as well as consecutive Masters semi-finals at Indian Wells and Miami. This year, despite an injury set back at the French Open, he entered the top-10 for the first time and qualified for the ATP finals, ending the season with more than 50 wins on tour.
The one criticism of Goffin has always been that he lacks a formula to beat the very best. Until recently he was like the artful matador who can’t kill the bull, or the swashbuckling tee to green golfer who can’t putt, or the counter-attacking batsman who can’t convert 50 into 100. But no more. In April he beat Novak Djokovic on clay in Monte Carlo, and last week in London he held his nerve to beat Rafael Nadal on Monday before toppling Roger Federer in the semi-finals on Saturday. Not a bad week’s work.
These results have earned Goffin kudos and brought him a good deal of attention, far more than he received for winning back-to-back titles in Shenzhen and Tokyo this autumn. But as a sportsman he remains criminally underrated and underappreciated, a fact which surely reflects badly on tennis. How can such a consistent, talented player be so unknown outside of the sport? Does tennis need to reconsider the way it promotes its players?
One competition which does provide the platform for lower-ranked players to star is the Davis Cup. Specifically, at the final in Lille between France and Belgium, it’s Goffin’s turn to take centre stage. The charismatic French captain Yannick Noah may give the most headline-worthy quotes of the weekend, but Goffin will leave his talking to the court. He’ll be the highest-ranked player on show and he carries an impressive 19–3 Davis Cup singles record into the final. This is Belgium’s second final in three years, and while the roles of captain Johan van Herck and tour veteran Steve Darcis must not be underplayed, Goffin has spearheaded the run. In the biggest matches of his life, in front of a possible record crowd for tennis at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, expect to see this diminutive, unassuming, softly-spoken Belgian perform stylishly and successfully. And afterwards, give him the credit he deserves.