Exclusive: Goffin Prepares To Go For ‘The Big One’
Some Davids have one Goliath to face. Others have many.
In an age when confronting big-hitting players 6’ 4” and above is commonplace, David Goffin is accustomed to going into battle against better-armed opponents. Standing just 180cm (5’ 11”) and weighing 70kg, the 28-year-old Belgian faces the constant challenge of turning players’ power back on them and leveraging the more subtle advantages his compact frame affords.
“It’s tough, but we still have some spots [in pro tennis] for small guys,” Goffin tells ATPTour.com. “When you’re young you might not be ready to deal with the frustration of playing the big guys and dealing with their power. But we move better, we see the ball earlier, we can play faster. That’s why you see smaller guys able to compete. We use the power of our opponent.”
That game plan will be stress tested Sunday when he tackles 6’ 6” World No. 8 Daniil Medvedev in the title match of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Goffin’s first ATP Masters 1000 final. The Russian showed what he could do with his height and power on Saturday when he outgunned World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Earlier in the day Goffin took out veteran Frenchman Richard Gasquet.
The success of Goffin’s ability to step inside the court and take time away from Medvedev by rebounding his opponent’s pace is likely to be one of the key determinants of the match.
As coach Tomas Johansson says, “Players like David are not going to overpower the big guys, but he can beat them by playing quickly and playing smartly. That’s what we try to achieve now. He also probably has the quickest legs on the Tour. So when you don’t have the height you have to compensate in some way. For David, it’s with his court coverage and playing quickly, playing fast.”
Fans who saw Goffin take out Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer during his run to the final of the 2017 Nitto ATP Finals – and to a career-high year-end No. 7 finish that season - expected to see the Monte-Carlo resident entrench himself at the top of the men’s game in 2018. But he finished last year outside the Top 20 after a right elbow injury devastated his post-US Open campaign. Earlier in the season he suffered a freak accident in Rotterdam that forced his retirement in the semi-finals against Grigor Dimitrov: A ball ricocheted off his racquet and into his left eye.
Looking for a spark after the Australian Open following a straight-sets third-round exit – to none other than Medvedev – Goffin parted ways with Thierry van Cleemput and teamed full-time with Thomas Johansson, whom was part of the coaching team in 2016.
Down on confidence, the 28-year-old found himself at No. 33 as recently as 10 June this year, his lowest mark since 2014. His turnaround began at Roland Garros, where he took a set from 12-time champion Rafael Nadal.
“It’s probably the toughest challenge you can have on tour to play Rafa at Roland Garros. Philippe Chatrier is probably his best court. I played well, played a really good set in the third. He was too strong in the end but that gave me a lot of confidence to continue on grass.”
And continue on he did.
After a quarter-final in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (l. Mannarino), he charged to the Halle final (l. Federer) and the quarter-finals of Wimbledon (l. Djokovic). It took the eventual champion at all three events to stop him.
Now the Belgian finds himself in his first ATP Masters 1000 final, in Cincinnati, where last year he also impressed, beating World No. 15 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the first round, No. 6 Kevin Anderson in the fourth round and No. 3 Juan Martin del Potro in the quarters. But he retired with an elbow injury against Roger Federer in the semis and played just three more tournaments that year.
“There have been some tough moments. I was down on confidence after a tough injury last year and I changed coach early this year. But I’ve continued to fight and at the end of the grass season I felt I was back playing my best tennis. I’m back in the Top 20 so I’m really enjoying this moment.”
Should he win Sunday’s final, Goffin will rocket to eighth place in the ATP Race To London and into contention to qualify for the eight-man Nitto ATP Finals in London from 10-17 November.
But his immediate focus is on winning the biggest title of his career. For a man with 256 match wins and who was once a mainstay in the world’s Top 15, four trophies from 12 finals doesn’t do full justice to his talents.
“It is what it is. I’ve won four titles and been in a lot of finals,” Goffin says. “I have no regrets. I always try to play the bigger tournaments. If I want more titles I could change my schedule and play more 250s, but I prefer to play the bigger tournaments and go for the big one. Four titles isn’t bad and I still have time to get more.”
It’s not just bigger opponents who provide an obstacle to smaller players like Goffin, Alex de Minaur, Yoshihito Nishioka, Gilles Simon, Diego Schwartzman and others. An even more formidable force is at play: math. The majority of matches hinge on the outcome of points between one and four shots. And that’s not where the small guys have an edge. For Goffin, however, that presents an opportunity to find improvement.
Listen To ATP Radio's Interview With Johansson:
“We prefer to have some rallies and make the opponents run a lot. But I’m working on my serve. That’s a really important weapon in modern tennis. To play shorter points, to get free points is key. Big guys are playing two, three strokes and then it’s over.”
Johansson thinks that coming forward may also be a way to win the shorter points. “We are working a lot on trying to get him to be more aggressive. If I could wish for something… I would want him to go to the net a lot more than he normally does because when he plays his best tennis he puts a lot of pressure on his opponent. But he also has to follow up, and around the net is still an area that he doesn’t feel 100 per cent comfortable and that is the thing that we’re always working on and trying to improve.”
- Andrew Eichenholz contributed to this story