Last year, an in-form David Goffin entered the French Open as one of the very few players who could potentially challenge the ever-dominant Rafael Nadal on his beloved clay.
Goffin, ranked No. 12 at the time, then suffered a freak accident in the third round, he tripped on the tarp placed at the end of the court behind the baseline while reaching for the ball. He fell, hurt his ankle, and his tournament was instantly over. It was a heartbreaking moment to witness, as Zeballos packed Goffin’s bag for him while the Belgian was taken off the court.
Goffin was forced to skip Wimbledon and it wasn’t until the US Open that he was able to win back-to-back matches again.
He found his form in the fall, winning consecutive trophies in Shenzhen and Tokyo, before defeating Nadal and Roger Federer in London en route to the title match of the ATP Finals. He deservedly finished 2017 ranked No. 7.
In a top-10 that has five players with a height of 198cm or taller, Goffin is 180cm and weighs 68kg. But the current world No. 9 is proving time and time again that size is not everything in tennis, as he continues to threaten the field with his speed, anticipation and his ability to take the ball early.
Despite another accident that saw him get hit by the ball in the eye in February, Goffin starts his French Open campaign today – against Dutchman Robin Haase – with many eyes on him as a danger man in the bottom half of the draw.
I sat down with the 27-year-old in Rome, to discuss what the French Open means to him, his unlucky accidents on the court, and lots more.
— David Goffin (@David__Goffin) May 26, 2018
You are part of the generation that kind of got stuck between the ‘Big Four’ and the young, up-and-coming, Next Gen guys. That must be a tough equation…
Yes but I have the age I have. Of course I’m 27, like you said I’m a little bit between both generations, but I’m still there. It’s good also to have the ‘Big Four’ because they pulled the level of tennis really high so you have to be really strong to follow them. And I think what they bring to tennis is amazing and now the level is so high on the ATP tour and you have to follow them but I’m really impressed also with the young guns coming on the tour, with Sascha Zverev, who won Madrid, and so many good ones with (Borna) Coric, (Karen) Khachanov, (Andrey) Rublev and so many.
I’m a little bit in between and I have to stay strong to be part of the top-10. I’ll try to stay there, to improve, because sometimes you have to continue to improve just to stay where you are. If you don’t improve your game I think you fall in the rankings.
At first it seemed like clay is your favourite surface but you’ve done incredibly well on hard courts, even indoors end of last year. How has your game evolved over the different surfaces throughout the years?
I think when I was young it was maybe clay courts because in Belgium we played on clay, so it’s quite natural to move and slide on clay for me. But after that, when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of power, so I was struggling a little bit on clay so it was easier to make winners on hard courts for me, with my game, I was moving well, I like to take the ball early, it was easier on hard courts.
Then growing up I was more powerful so I had more power so on clay it was tough to make a winner against me and it was easier for me to find the good pace and play a bit heavier, so that’s why maybe now I can play on every surface and I’m still comfortable on hard courts, especially outdoor, and I’m feeling great on every surface.
With the accident you had at Roland Garros last year, do you feel you have unfinished business there, especially with how well you were playing in the build-up?
I think so, I think in that part of the year last year I played probably my best tennis. Also at the end of the year with the Masters and the Davis Cup, I was playing my best tennis so far. But on clay I was playing my best tennis last year, and I was at the French Open with a lot of confidence, I was in the third round against Zeballos and happened what happened. It’s okay, it was an accident and now I’m looking forward to going back in Paris to play hopefully another good tournament with some good level.
Was it mentally tough to get over that incident?
When you have an injury, the first moment and the first week when you’re injured it’s kind of – you’re happy because you’re a little bit at home and you have some free time with you family to rest a little bit, because I was a bit tired when I had my injury at the French but then after two weeks all of a sudden you want to come back but you cannot because it’s too early. You start to miss tennis a lot. And as soon as you come back on the court you want to come back as soon as you can but the level is not there, sometimes you’re still feeling your ankle but it’s not 100 per cent, so you have to be patient, and that’s the most difficult thing for the players with injuries, it’s to be patient. And also when you’re 100 per cent, your level isn’t there yet. The key is to be patient.
Does the French Open hold a special place in your heart with it being so close to home?
Yes, because it’s really close to the Belgian border so the Belgian fans always come to Paris, so there’s a lot of fans since I started to play there, since the first time, I always played on a big court – probably because of the fans, because the organisation they know they had a lot of Belgian fans. So I always played on the big courts, so it was always a great atmosphere, always great conditions for me, it’s like playing at home, same place, same balls, I always love to play at the French Open and I have some great memories from there and hopefully some more coming.
You made the fourth round as a lucky loser on your Roland Garros debut in 2012 and you ended up losing a great four-setter to Federer. What’s the biggest difference between that 21-year-old Goffin and the person you are today?
The first time I played Roger I didn’t know what I was doing. Now I’m more mature, more experienced on the tour, that’s the difference. I’m another player, I improved a lot, I manage the match much better than in the past. I’m more calm also on the court.
Tennis is obviously getting taller and taller. The top-10 has five players over 198cm. Is it getting tougher competing against all these big guys?
I don’t know. I think there is still some opportunity for small guys to play some good tennis. There were always some great players, for example (Sebastien) Grosjean, (Arnaud) Clement, Rochus brothers, now you have (Diego) Schwartzman, so there is still some place for small ones and I think for example, for the big guys, for John Isner, or Marin Cilic, I think they don’t like to play against small guys because they don’t miss, they can return, they have to run a lot, so I think we still have some opportunity to go to the top.
Looking back at your ATP Finals tournament last year, do you see it as a magic week or do you feel that kind of level is very attainable for you on a consistent basis?
Both. I think it was not a week where I closed my eyes and I put everything on the line. The end of the year was consistent, I was playing well, I was really calm, so it was a great week I think that I can repeat.
But it was a bit tricky because at the end I had Davis Cup after and I wasted a lot of energy at the end of the year and it was tough to come back four weeks later at the Australian Open. I needed some time to get back to my best level and to practice a bit and be ready for the next season. That’s why I came back and started to play well in indoor tournaments in France and in Rotterdam but I got hit by a ball in my eye and I had to fight again to come back.
Do you feel like you’re an unlucky guy?
No, I don’t think so. It was just another accident but it’s okay. I try to stay positive and try to come back and play my best tennis.
There is an element of on-court intimidation in tennis, some players put their game face on. You seem like a very nice guy both on and off the court, do you ever try to look meaner when you’re in a match?
I try to intimidate on the court with my game, with the pressure I can put with my game, how I’m running on the court and not with the body or the face, or the way I’m looking.
So you think those other ways to intimate aren’t really part of the game?
It is, but I don’t behave like that.
The women’s French Open draw is as exciting as ever, with top stars like Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina gunning for a first major and veterans like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova looking to recapture their Grand Slam-winning form.
Here are some names to look out for over the next fortnight on the red dirt of Roland Garros.
Simona Halep (ROU x1)
The two-time runner-up has unfinished business in Paris, especially after last year’s final where she led by a set and a break before falling to an unseeded Jelena Ostapenko. Is currently one of the top players on clay and is definitely one to beat at Roland Garros.
Elina Svitolina (UKR x4)
Successfully defended her title in Rome last week and once again comes to Paris with lots of confidence. Looking to finally make it to a Slam semi-final for the first time after falling short on three previous occasions. Appears fitter than she’s ever been and is in the less loaded bottom half of the draw.
Caroline Garcia (FRA x7)
The home favourite made quarters in Paris last year and comes to the event this season as the No. 7 seed. Will have the crowd behind her and has a game that can take her all the way if she handles the pressure right.
Maria Sharapova (RUS x28)
The two-time champion snagged a seeding spot at the very last minute by reaching the quarters in Madrid and the semis in Rome this month. Appearing at the French Open for the first time since 2015, Sharapova’s successful history in Paris makes her one to watch this fortnight.
Serena Williams (USA)
Unseeded and ranked 453 in the world, Serena has played just four matches so far this season as she slowly returns from her maternity leave. Has a tough opener against Kristyna Pliskova and many eyes will be on her to see how far along she is in terms of finding her form this comeback. Has a tricky draw with No. 17 seed Ashleigh Barty, No. 11 seed Julia Goerges and Sharapova all potentially in her path.
Serena is 65-1 in Grand Slam first rounds with her sole opening defeat coming at the 2012 French Open to Virginie Razzano.
Jelena Ostapenko (LAT x5)
A year older and wiser, it will be interesting to see how Ostapenko handles being the defending champion at Roland Garros. The 20-year-old showed some decent form en route to the Rome last-eight and has landed in the same quarter of the draw as Svitolina. At stat to note here: There have been just 11 successful title defences at Roland Garros (post-1945) compared to 24 at Wimbledon, 22 at the US Open and 21 at the Australian Open.
Petra Kvitova (CZE x8)
Carrying an 11-match winning streak – on clay – heading into Paris, it’s crazy to think that this time last year, Kvitova was just making her return from a horrifying knife attack that nearly ended her career. Has won back-to-back titles in Prague and Madrid but is still unconvinced she has fully conquered the clay.
Kiki Bertens (NED x18)
The Dutchwoman is as close to a clay specialist as you can get on the women’s tour. On the dirt this season, Bertens won Charleston and was runner-up in Madrid. She is also a former French Open semi-finalist.
A semi-finalist at Roland Garros four years ago, Ernests Gulbis found himself grinding through the qualifying rounds in Paris this week before he managed to secure a spot in the main draw on Friday.
The Latvian former top-10 player was competing in the qualifying tournament at a Grand Slam for the first time since 2007 and just the third time in his entire career.
He defeated Stephane Robert, Stefano Travaglia and finally Italian lefty Alessandro Giannessi 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the third round on Friday to book himself a place in the main draw.
Friday’s affair was an edgy affair that saw a temperamental Gulbis get irritated throughout.
But he survived it and will take on 29th-seeded Gilles Muller in the French Open first round.
“The experience was, it’s tough, it’s really tough to pass qualies because everyone is super-motivated, everybody gives their best. A lot of prize money, it’s not a lot of points but a lot of prize money for the guys, especially those ranked from 100-200. These are the weeks that really make a difference for them, if you win 10 or $20,000 each match, everybody really goes for it and they show their best tennis,” Gulbis told Sport360 of his first Slam qualifying experience in more than 11 years.
“Today I think my opponent played really well, I don’t know how I won to be honest, I just stuck around and was lucky a little bit.”
Currently ranked 162 in the world, Gulbis hasn’t strung together back-to-back wins like this in a long time, and he knows it.
He’s coming off a semi-final appearance in the Bordeaux Challenger last week and feels he could be finally turning a corner after struggling for so long.
“It gives me a boost but I need to recover, I’m not 18 anymore, these long matches they take a lot,” confessed the 29-year-old Gulbis.
“Especially now when I hadn’t had back-to-back matches for a long. I haven’t won three matches in a row, check the statistics, but I think like for two years. And it happened in Bordeaux for the first time, and now here, so hopefully it’s some kind of something is starting. And something is starting, if you win six matches in a short period of time of course something is starting, so we’ll see how I do in the main draw.”
He’s right. Prior to Bordeaux, the last time Gulbis won three matches in a row was in the 2016 French Open – one of which was via retirement.
The Latvian will now have to get himself ready for a showdown with Luxembourg’s Muller on Monday.
Roland Garros is Gulbis’ best Slam, having amassed a 16-11 win-loss record there.