- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
NEW YORK — On Tuesday evening, Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune, an 18-year-old qualifier out of Denmark, stepped to the baseline in Arthur Ashe Stadium. He was down two sets to one, and down 0-1 in that set, but had managed to take the second set against his opponent, No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
As Rune prepared to serve in the fourth set, at 15-15, he suddenly stopped. He crouched down on his knees, and briefly rested his head on his racket. The crowd tried to rally him back, shouting his name into the thick August air. Rune responded, standing up to hit a 91 mph serve, which Djokovic promptly smacked back, a forehand winner down the line. The teenager watched longingly as it whizzed by.
It took Djokovic only 51 minutes to take those last two sets, 6-2, 6-1. It took Rune 58 minutes to win the second set alone, 7-6, after a tense tiebreaker. When asked to reflect on his performance, and what had changed toward the end of the match, Rune immediately knew the answer.
“My fitness let me down,” he said. "I started cramping already in the beginning of the third set. From there on (it) was tough. I knew if I had to win, I really had to fight for every point. With my body at this point, it was impossible.”
“Impossible” might sound like hyperbole, but in Rune’s case, it likely was true. Entering Tuesday, Rune had never played a best-of-five-set match in his (brief) ATP career. Before he even stepped on the court, the odds were against him — and not just because he was facing a three-time Open champion who is eyeing the calendar Grand Slam.
“There are very specific recommendations in terms of how you should hydrate, what you should eat, those sorts of things,” said Dr. Alexis Colvin, the chief medical officer for the U.S. Open. “But the other part is also the mental component. For instance, in (Rune’s) match last night, one of them had played five sets before, and the other one had never played five sets. So there’s also that sense of being prepared — knowing what to expect. The more experience he has with it, I’m sure the better he’ll get.”
Rune’s struggle was quite familiar to Djokovic. Before the world No. 1 embarked on his quest for the calendar Grand Slam in 2021, he’d completed the Grand Slam of withdrawals, dropping out of each major tournament at least once. And for a younger Djokovic, it wasn’t just cramps; he struggled with blurred vision, heat exhaustion, dizziness, and gastroenteritis, too. In 2005, he withdrew in the middle of a match against Guillermo Corio at the French Open because his “legs had turned to rock” and he “couldn’t breathe.”
In his post-match news conference Tuesday, Djokovic said that Rune’s struggles made it an unfair battle.
“I can relate to Holger (Rune), what he's going through,” he said. “We had a little chat in the locker room. It's an emotional moment for him. It's not easy to see that. He's really sad. I understand that. I've been through that.
“I just told him that he handled himself extremely well. He didn't want to stop. I thought he's going to stop the end of the third. He just kept going with dignity, finished off the match. He deserved definitely my respect, the respect of a lot of people. He's still very, very young, 18 years old. He's got plenty of time ahead of him. I'm sure we're going to see a lot of him in the future.”
Endurance has been a theme at this year’s U.S. Open, which started with 19 five-set matches in the first round — the most first-round five-setters in recent Open history. The closest came in 2019 and 2016, when 17 five-set first-round matches were played. Last year, there were 14 five-setters in the first round.
Severe cramping — like what Rune struggled with Tuesday night — is usually a reflection of fitness. But according to Colvin, the ability to endure a five-set marathon boils down to more than that, and much of what separates those who can do it from those who can’t is experience.
“It’s hard,” she said, when asked how younger players can adjust to a match of that length. “There’s definitely guidelines — in terms of how much protein they should be getting, carbs, as well as how to hydrate and eat during the match. But some of that is still personalized. Take hydration, for example. You want to take into account what your sweat rate is. Some people are heavier sweaters than others, and those people would have to replace the electrolytes that they lose at a different rate than someone who doesn’t sweat as much.
“So, even though there are guidelines for everything … it’s hard to say that you can make this up, you don’t need the experience, you can just make it up by doing X. If that was the case then everyone would be amazing at age 17.”
Another factor that plays in the favor of older, more experienced athletes is the access that they’re granted. Djokovic has said himself that he is only as successful as the people around him — friends and family, but also experts in recovery, training, biomechanics and nutrition. With that access, he was able to completely revamp his diet — cutting out all dairy and gluten — and making changes to his conditioning, while adding meditation and yoga to his regimen.
“The reason all of those things — fitness, conditioning, hydration, nutrition and recovery — are all important is not just to move up in the rankings, but to stay there,” Colvin said. “The best players aren’t just playing tennis all the time; they’re paying attention to other things, too. I think it’s sort of this cycle where, the better you play, the more you are able to have those services or that knowledge. So I think if you’re a junior trying to come up, or a lower-level player trying to come up, of course the on-court stuff is important, but you really have to pay attention to the off-court stuff too.”
Djokovic’s turning point came in 2010, when he was playing Jo Wilfred Tsonga in the quarterfinals of the French Open. He vomited during a bathroom break and was struggling with respiratory problems throughout the match. Dr. Igor Cetojevic, a specialist in energetic medicine who is based out of Cyprus, was watching this on TV from home and could see the athlete losing his power and stamina in real time. The TV commentator was attributing the issue to Djokovic’s asthma, but Cetojevic felt different factors were at play.
“I could see that some digestive issue was the root cause of his difficulty breathing,” he told USA TODAY Sports, via email. “This was confirmed when I checked him a few months later. When we began to work together, Novak followed my suggestions, making the changes in his diet and also his way of eating (to focus on the FOOD in front of him and not on the TV or mobile phone chatter) and immediately saw an improvement in his stamina.”
Once Djokovic cut out gluten and lactose, his asthma — which Cetojevic believes was not actually asthma, but a diet-induced breathing issue — disappeared. Like Colvin, Cetojevic says that no one athlete is the same. This is where experience can come into play: as time goes on, most players know what works for them and what doesn’t.
“There is no one perfect “diet”,” Cetojevic said. “Each person is individual, with different body types and genetic predispositions. When I suggested that Novak reduce meat consumption there was a very negative reaction from his family. We Serbs are meat-eaters! But in Novak’s case, the extra energy needed to digest heavy read [red] meat detracted from his performance as a top-class athlete. I told him, 'Your body is as a Doberman, not a Rottweiler!' Another player would require a different regiment.”
An embodiment of Djokovic’s transformation came on Thursday night, after he defeated Tallon Griekspoor in straight sets. After the match, he said that he feels like a five-set match gives him a better chance to win.
“I feel like the longer the match goes the better I am,” he said.
Follow Alex Coffey on Twitter @byalexcoffey
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open reveals physical, mental strain of five-set matches