David (Goffin) vs. Goliaths
With exclusive insight, learn how the Belgian counters power and a physically demanding era to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the sport's biggest stars
The abiding memory is of a brittle-looking youth, who appeared fresh out of high school, explaining, in an insightful post-match interview, how he had had the audacity, the feel and instinct to worry one of his heroes, Roger Federer, whose posters adorned his bedroom wall. Six years have passed since David Goffin blazed a trail into the 2011 Roland Garros fourth round, when, as a 21-year-old lucky loser, his fluid movement and anticipation came to the fore on a global scale, over four sets. It was a pre-cursor of the future. He appeared to be blissfully unaware of the ceiling of his talent, but today, as he steps out to practise in Paris, ahead of the clay-court major, the Belgian is revered as a player’s player — a product of hard work, talent and the right attitude.
In an era of goliaths, 5’11” Goffin is an anomaly, 26 pounds off the next lightest player in the Top 10 of the ATP Rankings, but is still able to pack a punch. How? Just like Michael Chang, his childhood hero Lleyton Hewitt, David Ferrer and Gilles Simon, whom he admires greatly, Goffin challenges the sport’s elite performers by countering his lack of size and power and turning his speed into a weapon, permitting him time to use every shot in his armoury. His peers recognise his qualities. “David is a complete player,” says Rafael Nadal. “He has all the shots… He's very good in all aspects. He's super quick. He has big talent and he’s [among the Top 10] because he has everything that a tennis player needs to become top player.” Marin Cilic agrees, stating, “Goffin is extremely quick, his forehand and backhand [are] very solid. He creates the points really well from his forehand… moves extremely well and also returns well.”
As a competitor, weighing in at 150 pounds (68 kilograms), Goffin will rarely overpower an opponent on serve, but in attempting to throw his ball toss further forward and by working hard on his second delivery, the right-hander relies on timing to tactically out-think and take time away from his opponents. “The serve is really important in modern tennis, so I had to work on that,” Goffin told ATPWorldTour.com. “Especially my second serve, building up the pace and placement during the winter of 2016. I’ve found that small adjustments have made big improvements.”
These clever tweaks are the brainchild of Goffin and his coach since 2004, Thierry van Cleemput, who admitted to ATPWorldTour.com, “I wasn’t happy about how he pushed off his left foot.” Van Cleemput started off as a physical education teacher, prior to 1993, when he began coaching Olivier Rochus, and later helped Goffin first break into the Top 10 in February 2017. Rochus, 5’6” in height, was a builder of points, who, just like Goffin, needed matches to strike top form. Both share Van Cleemput’s belief that “a player must understand the game, be tactically adept and able to play more than four or five shots.
“It means that the player can develop their physical conditioning, their coordination and tactical qualities. It’s more than hitting a serve hard, it’s understanding the reasons why you win or lose. With David it’s so easy, as he knows where to put the ball and to find a solution to winning the point. He is amazing to work with.”
Goffin plays an elegant, intelligent game that takes time away from his opponents. He produces his best tennis on top of the baseline, ever ready to step into his backhand — his favourite stroke, down the line — or, of late, approach the net. Thomas Johansson, who was a part of the Belgian’s team from February to November 2016, set the wheels in motion to improve movement forwards. Grigor Dimitrov, a regular practice partner and a good friend, believes, “David's one of the most intelligent players out there. He always tries to find a way to win — I like that. He also has a very positive demeanour on the court. Even when things aren't going well for him, he's playing well.”
Goffin places great emphasis on his positioning, which is extremely important, because if he runs far from the baseline, his poise and groundstroke shape breaks up — and he can get exposed on his forehand. By concealing his emotions, more often than not, the 27-year-old does not allow his opponents any early psychological advantage. Also, in keeping his unforced error count to a minimum, the Belgian’s compact game draws upon his strengths of great movement, but also his penetrating returns (No. 10) and his ability to prosper in pressure situations (No. 9), according to Infosys ATP Scores & Stats.
“I have to move well to take the ball early, to run quickly and play fast,” Goffin told ATPWorldTour.com. “I have to be aggressive and play with my best weapons — aggressively on return and I must also serve really well to be effective on court. If I am fresh mentally, and I'm physically okay, it can be a great leveler on court.”
While he has developed his leg strength, Goffin’s brand of tennis means he has little need for a bigger upper body. But that hasn’t meant he’s shied away from the gym during his 10-season pro career. Two freak accidents led to enforced absences from the courts, just as he was building momentum. One, on 2 June 2017, when he left Roland Garros on crutches after getting caught on a tarpaulin cover; and then on 17 February this year, when a ball ricocheted off his frame and into his left eye during his ABN Amro World Tennis Tournament semi-final against Dimitrov.
Goffin spun a six-week post-Roland Garros lay-off into a positive and it was a major reason why he produced such a strong finish to the 2017 season, going 25-8 in the final stretch, with a career-high 59 match wins from 83 matches. “Mentally I was fresh, following the injury at the French Open,” Goffin told ATPWorldTour.com. “I had some time to rest and that was the key to perform well at the end of the year, when it’s never easy to play your best after nine months of competition. The injury wasn’t easy, it meant that I wasn’t feeling well and confident on my feet.”
Back-to-back ATP World Tour titles at the Shenzhen Open (d. Dolgopolov) and the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships (d. Mannarino) in October, broke a six-final losing streak and propelled him to the elite eight-player 2017 Nitto ATP Finals at The O2 in London, where he earned a big breakthrough. Goffin told ATPWorldTour.com, “When I beat Simon for the first time, early in my career, I remember it was something special as I knew he was a great player with a similar style of game. When I beat Rafa in the first match at London in November , then against Roger in the semi-finals, just weeks on from a bad loss to him in Basel, it was another mental step. When you lose, you have to change something. Again, although I lost 6-0, 6-2 against Dimitrov in the group stage, it wasn’t easily mentally when we met in the final. I played a great match, although he won.”
Van Cleemput remembers it was an important week, telling ATPWorldTour.com, “When we got the draw, we thought bad luck. I thought it was possible against Nadal, then two days later it was a disaster winning two games against Dimitrov. His attitude was really bad, he didn’t try anything new. But Dimitrov played really well and later the semi-final against Federer was important in his rehabilitation of attitude and confidence. When he lost the first set of the final against Dimitrov 6-3, David had two possibilities: to stay the same, in his comfort zone, or change and start to work. Rather than 2-3 shot rallies, dictated by Dimitrov, David played four-five-six shot rallies, bided his time and found a way back.”
So it was a bitter pill to swallow in February, when he injured his left eye, but it did allow Van Cleemput further time to work on Goffin’s physical conditioning after a short off-season. Although the coach regretted sending Goffin back too early for the Miami Open presented by Itau in March, where his pupils were unevenly dilated in a swift exit. “When I returned from Miami, I trained and played tennis once again specifically for the clay-court season,” said Goffin, who initially played at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell and Mutua Madrid Open with a special contact lens in his left eye. With daily eye-strengthening exercises and regular contact with a travelling doctor, now his vision has corrected itself and he no longer uses the aid.
Already with 13 match under his belt this year on clay (9-4), his favourite surface, Goffin has put in the hard yards too on the practice court — undertaking two, two-hour sessions prior to matches, where Van Cleemput told ATPWorldTour.com, “the focus is on training specific to the service, and then building up the playing of points; adapting his body, the ball speed and trajectory.” But with the self-belief and expectation of playing a lot of matches at this year’s Roland Garros, there cannot be any talk of winning a Grand Slam championship, with just two quarter-final showings at the tournament in 2016 and at the 2017 Australian Open.
After doing well in London last year, a Belgian TV channel broadcast a report on the pressure on him to potentially win at the Australian Open,” Van Cleemput recalled to ATPWorldTour.com. “It was a disaster for David, he played well for one week, not six months. Maybe he will find the level one day. We are working hard to get to his maximum level, the highest level.”
Hailing from a stable family background, and with his girlfriend of seven years, Stephanie Tuccitto, and their chocolate Labrador, Narro, who lives with his partner's parents in Liège, never too far away, Goffin has a good balance in life to continue to work hard and play at the highest level for the next six or seven years. In playing freely, with little conflict in his head, the Belgian will continue to follow his own tennis blueprint for consistency and longevity.