It’s been a peculiar year for David Goffin, something his supporters should be getting used to by now. Having ended 2018 at 20th in the world, he slumped outside the top 30 heading into Wimbledon. Following a strong Wimbledon campaign, where he beat the in-form Daniil Medvedev in a thrilling five-set match on his way to the quarterfinals, along with a first Masters final in Cincinnati, Goffin will undoubtedly be frustrated with the manner of his loss to Roger Federer at the US Open.
Humiliated by Federer
Federer was the overwhelming favourite heading into a last-16 tie with Goffin. Nonetheless, there were murmurs that given Goffin’s recent form he could pose a serious threat to the Swiss. Although he has generally struggled against the “Big 3,” he did beat Federer in the 2017 ATP Finals. Many felt this was an area he could take confidence from.
What followed was nothing short of a massacre. Reminiscent of Federer’s schooling of Matteo Berrettini at Wimbledon this year, in a match lasting less time than Nadal’s practice session, Federer’s brilliance was juxtaposed by Goffin being surprisingly out of sorts. Jim Courier somewhat harshly suggested that Goffin should be fined for tanking. Rather than him not being bothered, the match highlighted the significance of mental strength to reach the top. In a fascinating post-match interview, Goffin was unable to explain exactly why his level dropped. He just felt he began to miss regulation shots for no apparent reason. Simply, Goffin has worked himself into a mental block against the “Big 3,” to a point where he perhaps doesn’t believe he can beat the top guys.
Goffin is part of an age group in-between the “Big 3” and the “NextGen,” alongside Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, and Milos Raonic. Whilst all are immensely talented, they have only reached two Major finals between them. Being in the later stages of their 20s and with some of the younger players looking primed to challenge for the Majors, one must wonder whether these guys have already missed their chance. Undoubtedly, in Goffin’s case, freak injuries have tormented his last few years, impeding his progress. Following a strong start to 2017, he led Horatio Zeballos in a third-round clash at Roland Garros, when he injured his ankle after innocuously tripping over the court-side tarpaulin. In early 2018, still fresh from a run to the final of the 2017 ATP Finals, he injured his eye off a net cord deflection against Dimitrov in the semifinal of Rotterdam.
Despite Goffin’s career being largely successful thus far, many who watch him regularly will feel as though he has the potential to reach the very top. His game is based around solid, offensive baseline play and a strong return. Whilst his serve is supposedly a weak point, at times it can be devastatingly accurate. He showed this in his third-round match at this year’s US Open against Pablo Carreno-Busta, where he hit 17 aces. He has almost single-handedly led Belgium to two Davis Cup finals, as well as the aforementioned Tour Finals final. Indeed, this year he made great strides in getting to the final of Cincinnati before losing to Medvedev. However, he is still searching for a run beyond the quarters at a Grand Slam. Given Federer himself realised Goffin’s potential in 2012, one wonders when he will take the next step.
The key determinant is mental fortitude. On court, Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and even Felix Auger-Alliassime, give the impression of fearlessness. They come with an arrogance that they know they can beat the best. Whilst Goffin is naturally more reserved on court, this occasionally leaks into giving the Big 3 too much respect and fear. Instead, when a tight set goes against him, he seemingly falls apart and deems the challenge too great to overcome against the very best.
Generally, the Belgian is a fighter. He boasts an impressive 9-2 fifth-set record and sits just one place below Federer for break points converted in his career at a commendable 41%. Since 2017, he has a respectable tie-break record of 55%, particularly for someone without a big serve. These stats demonstrate both fitness and mental fortitude against most players. However, beating most players is not enough to win grand slams. Whilst he has the character to dig deep, this resolve seemingly wilts away against Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.
Before the US Open matchup, he had previously taken Federer to a first set tiebreak only to lose in straights twice. Similarly, he has suffered the same fate against both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic previously. This year, he was up a break against both Federer at the US Open and against Djokovic in Wimbledon. Once they broke back, Goffin mounted no further challenge and subsequently succumbed rapidly. Frustratingly, he has shown the capability of playing the type of tennis to genuinely challenge them. For example, he played some swashbuckling tennis in taking a set off Nadal at the French on Chatrier this year. The fact he has beaten all three gives belief that he can quell his inner demons, although he currently faces a 1-6, 1-4, and 1-9 record against Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer, respectively.
What’s next for Goffin?
The major hindrance to Goffin reaching the heights his talent deserves is his lack of self-belief. His unique weapons of immense foot speed and the ability to take the ball so early can trouble any player. Casual viewers might under-appreciate these weapons, who dismiss him as too slightly built. To tennis fans and players, these attributes culminate in a player whom when on-song, is staggering to watch. Although Coach Thomas Johansson will try to instill greater self-belief against the best, one senses it must come more from Goffin himself. Nonetheless, 2019 has been positive for Goffin so far. He verges on a return to both the top 10 and a place in the ATP Finals. The question remains, what next for David Goffin at the end of 2019, through to next year?
Main Photo from Getty.