“David Goffin has written himself off.”
“David Goffin doesn’t have a shot.”
“David Goffin is roasted.”
When will the tennis world learn?
It would have been a different story if Goffin really had written himself off – as had appeared to be the case, if you only read half of the quote floating around from his pre-match press conference.
“I’ve never found a key to beat Roger,” Goffin expressed prior to the match. “Honestly, I don’t know what to do tomorrow.”
He paused for breath, phones came out, words were tweeted. And then:
“… But I’m going to try something different, something that I’ve never done in the past.”
And ultimately, that something turned out to be something pretty special. Something victorious.
This is what happens when only half of the story is observed. If one had only looked a bit further, beyond the quotes and a 6-0 head-to-head deficit and Goffin’s lack of an intimidation factor, they would have seen that tennis legend Roger Federer – the owner of a phenomenal 2017 record – had not played his best tennis at the O2 Arena this week. They would have seen that once Rafael Nadal had withdrawn from the ATP Finals, the one standout man in the already-depleted field was the Swiss maestro. And a look into the not-too-distant past would have revealed that Federer plays his best tennis on the big stages when there is no self-inflicted pressure on his shoulders – and his worst tennis when the opposite is the case.
Federer wanted to win this tournament. Federer knew he should win this tournament. Federer was aware that he was not playing well enough to win this tournament. And all three factors collided and tangled into a ball of mess that ultimately rolled him out of the competition.
Still, that is not to take anything away from Belgian’s Goffin – who openly adored Federer in the months and years leading up to this match, and on Saturday proved that there is nothing wrong with this. The Swiss legend was the focused man heading out of the blocks, and although Goffin’s opening service game was a marathon battle of side-to-side rallies and decent consistency, the world no. 8 clearly did not have the weapons to trouble a calm and collected opponent. When Federer aced to close a 6-2 first set, many – understandably – expected the rest of the match to pass swiftly.
But that was when Goffin really started to play with nothing to lose. It was as if the 5’11” right-hander had suddenly withdrawn into some sort of bubble, where he was distanced from the crowd and his opponent and everything else inside the O2 Arena. Everything except his game. And that ensured every fibre of his energy and concentration was committed to it, turning his racquet into a magic wand.
Once the second set got underway, the biggest difference was the no. 7 seed’s serve. He landed it regularly, delivering it bigger, placing it well, and backing it up. And when Federer saw that the 26-year-old was not going to just roll over and give him the win, he frankly did not seem up to the challenge. Unusually panicky, his unforced error count was ramping up as Goffin levelled with a 6-3 set.
Things could have ended completely differently if Federer had capitalised on a 0-30 advantage in the second game of the decider. But a mixture of Goffin’s staying power and his own waywardness got the Belgian on the board, and the 19-time Grand Slam champion’s uneasiness was palpable.
Continuing to produce well-placed bullets as the world awaited his flop, Goffin unleashed every trick in his book. He pulled off astounding angles and demonstrated big-moment precision, dominating rallies from the baseline as Federer strove in vain for consistency. From drop-shots to volleys to backhands, everything was under control.
When Federer had break point to get back on serve at 4-2, he ballooned a groundstroke long. And when the Belgian hammered down two aces as he began to serve for the match, the world no. 2’s helpless shrug said it all. He had not been expecting this, and he was by no means ready for it.
A final return into the net sealed the biggest win of Goffin’s career: 2-6 6-3 6-4. And as impressive as his physical display was, his mental composure outshone it.
So far in the aftermath, few are publicly regretting the fact that they wrote off David Goffin. Some are pretending the blunder never even happened. But how many times will these upsets occur before the tennis world learns its lesson?
It is not up to fans, spectators or even journalists to write a player off. Can we see inside a player’s mind? Can we truly know the limits of their capabilities? Only the player in question knows the mindset they possess, the game plan they have prepared. And if they have earned the right to be on such a stage, then what right have we to question their shot at triumph?
When Roberta Vinci upset Serena Williams in the 2015 US Open semifinals, the world was left reeling. Williams was two wins away from capturing the Calendar Grand Slam, with the three women standing in her way all opponents she had dominated. Looking at the head-to-head with her forthcoming opponent, the other competitors remaining, and the way she was currently unmatched on the tour, the tournament – not just this match – looked as good as hers.
It all sounds rather familiar.
Two things in particular from this occasion bear similarity to Federer’s loss to Goffin. Serena won a straightforward first set in that semifinal, before buckling in a mess of errors under the pressure heaped upon her. And Vinci did not truly believe in her ability to rise victorious – to the point that she had already booked her plane ticket home.
Both Goffin and Vinci voiced their lack of confidence in their chances. But whether or not they believed in their opportunity to succeed, each player gave themselves that chance. They both picked up a racquet, stepped out on court, and played their game – knowing that their opponents were not invincible, and that miracles can happen.
And they did.
It is fine to doubt a player’s chances. There is nothing wrong with saying you don’t think they will win. It is even fine to say that you don’t think they have a chance.
But to state that a player does not have a chance, point blank, is simply uninformed – and even verges on arrogance. And just occasionally, the underdog has no mercy on your pride.
David Goffin’s message is: Don’t get caught out. Don’t doubt that things can change – however long you have fought, however regularly you have lost, however many times you have failed.
And never give up. Because if you are up for it, there is always, always a chance.
Thanks for reading! I’ll hopefully be writing (or recording) a reflection on the ATP season next week, so stay tuned by following on Twitter or subscribing to the website. Let me know your thoughts on Goffin’s big win in the comments section!