On The Rise: David Goffin
US Open 2012
by Matt Fitzgerald
Belgian David Goffin broke through with a run to the fourth round at Roland Garros.
What he lacks in size and power, 150-pound Belgian youngster David Goffin makes up for in shotmaking and tennis smarts. His dramatic Roland Garros run is unlikely to prove to be a one-off.
On a blustery Sunday afternoon at Roland Garros, two players at opposite ends of the tennis spectrum take to Court Suzanne Lenglen for a fourth-round match. At one end stands a 109th-ranked lucky loser, playing his first main draw at a Grand Slam event. Across the net is a 16-time major champion, revered by millions across the world and a fan favourite in Paris. It has the ring of a David vs. Goliath matchup. It is David Goffin vs. Roger Federer.
The intricacies of the head-to-head clash went beyond their tennis accomplishments. Federer was Goffin’s childhood idol, a man his entire family respected. They never missed an opportunity to watch the Swiss maestro on television together. And now one of their own was facing this icon, whose posters once decked out Goffin’s bedroom wall.
Reflecting on his mindset going into the match, Goffin tells DEUCE, "He was my idol but I was excited to go on the court and to do my best. I didn’t need to make a winner every point. I just wanted to do my job and not make a lot of mistakes. The match against him was just to see if I was far from him or if my level was close."
The opportunity to play Federer was a long-awaited one for Goffin, who first picked up a racquet at the age of five. As a child, Goffin and his older brother Simon played in their backyard on a tennis court constructed with chalk and a rope net. Simon was Pete Sampras and David was Andre Agassi, so naturally, their matches went down to the wire long after the sun had set.
Their father Michel would repeatedly come outside and say, "Guys it’s dark outside. It’s time to take a shower and go to bed." Pseudo Agassi and Sampras, desperate to determine who would win the battle on their homemade court, would respond, "But Dad its 5-5 in the fourth and we can't stop like that!"
Goffin remembers, "When I was young, I loved playing tennis. After school, I just wanted to be on the court to play, play and play again. My father was a tennis coach, so that’s why I started. My brother was playing well and went to the Belgian Tennis Federation (Association Francophone de Tennis) when he was young. I followed him there when I was eight or nine. I’m still there at the moment."
For three years, Goffin practised three times a week with his father and former WTA player Michele Gurdal, an Australian Open quarter-finalist. At the age of eight, Goffin was recruited by the AFT and Michel felt the organisation would be best suited to cultivate his son’s game.
"I found that the AFT could be the right partner for the development of David in the long-term and so far the AFT is doing a good job," believes Michel. "So from that age until today David is trained by the coaches there. Reginald Willems, his current coach, is doing a tremendous job. We are counting on him to bring David's game to the next level."
Standing at 5’ 11’’ and weighing 150 pounds, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Belgian does not embody the contemporary tennis frame. But what Goffin lacks in natural power and size, he makes up for with his shot making, owning an Agassi-esque ability to take the ball early, moving his larger opponents around the court and coming to net at the right time to close out points.
"We’ve been practising together for a long time. He came to the Federation with me so I’ve known him for more than 10 years," says Steve Darcis. "He was young and already a great player. And now he’s even better.
"He needs to improve the serve. Physically he’s already strong and is very fast. Mentally he is tough, so I think he can be one of the best players in Belgium that we’ve ever had. He just needs a little time."
Goffin agrees with Darcis. "I have a good return and move well. I think those are the best parts of my game. I have to improve my serve, because in modern tennis, it’s a big weapon to have. I have to continue to be aggressive."
The decision by Michel to send Goffin to the AFT has paid off. He peaked at No. 10 in the ITF Junior rankings in July 2008 and has improved his year-end South African Airways ATP Ranking each season the past four years. Thus far in 2012, Goffin has risen to the occasion, reaching his first ATP World Tour quarter-final in Chennai and winning his main draw debut at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Miami.
"This year, I have seen him develop as a tennis player by being able to produce the same game level during practice and during big matches in big tournaments against top players," says Michel. "His better comprehension of the game at this level and his ability to negotiate big points at the right moments has made him more competitive in 2012."
Michel’s assessment became apparent at Roland Garros. Goffin breezed through the first two qualifying rounds before falling to Joao Souza at the final hurdle. But the 21 year old gained entry as a lucky loser and made the most of his second chance. He won back-to-back five setters against experienced veterans Radek Stepanek and Arnaud Clement, farewelling the popular Frenchman in his final Roland Garros appearance. He followed with an all-round performance to beat Lukasz Kubot in straight sets before falling to Federer in the round of 16.
"I played two good matches in qualifying. And then in the third round, I was a little nervous, knowing I could be in my first Grand Slam main draw. I didn’t play a good match," acknowledges Goffin.
"With a little bit of luck, I got in for the first time. I was relieved and played so good. I went into a fifth set for the first time against Stepanek. I continued to play my best tennis until I played Roger. The first two sets against him were an amazing level for me, but he was really focused and calm and he won in four."
Goffin earned the seal of approval from Federer, who said following his 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory, "I thought he played really well. Great impression. He took the ball early every time. [If you] don't hit a very good shot, he can take advantage of that.
"I guess for his size - and he’s not the heaviest guy out there - it's natural he's [going to] be a good mover, and his strengths lie sort of in the baseline game. He's got great potential in terms of his touch and the way he reads the game… He impressed me and I enjoyed the match."
Adds Michel, "I think that David has always admired Roger for his game but also for his personality: nice guy, humble, with self-control, ambition, respect and a nice sense of humour... a role model for David. We received the confirmation of this after his match against David in Paris."
Court Suzanne Lenglen is a far cry from a homemade chalk court in Leige. From looking at Federer on his wall each night to being praised by his idol for his performance, Goffin is proof that dreams can become reality.