Three to see: Grigor's early test
He is no towering giant, but David Goffin knows his game stacks up against the best in Paris.
Whether scuttling around manically on the Parisian clay as a man or watching wide-eyed from the Philippe-Chatrier stands as a boy, David Goffin, now a welcome fixture among the world’s top 10 players, swears that the influence of Roland-Garros on his blossoming career has been all-embracing.
The Belgian, while laughing that at 5ft 11in he is not exactly the tiniest in a tennis world populated by giants, admits that he is still delighted to have become an inspiration to other “little guys” in the sport as his athletic game has transported him to the verge of the major prizes.
And though the 27-year-old’s rise has been rudely interrupted over this past year by a couple of freakish injuries, the world No.9 will be delighted to return to the courts where his schoolboy dreams have been realised down the years.
“It is really special for us as Belgians to play here,” explained Goffin in an interview with rolandgarros.com. “There’s always a lot of support, it’s only an hour-and-a-half from the French border, and I remember coming here twice with my parents and my brother when I was small.”
His most striking memory was as a seven-year old in 1998 making the four-hour drive from his hometown of Rocourt on the outskirts of Liege with his family to follow the fortunes of Belgium’s big hope of the day, Filip Dewulf, who had been semi-finalist the year before, in the fourth round.
“I remember it so clearly,” smiled Goffin. “It’s a big memory for me, this first time I came here and Filip beat (Spain’s Francisco) Clavet and I was just so impressed by the level he played. It was inspirational for me.”
Years later, he was the one inspiring a new generation of Belgians as he recalled the 2012 edition as his first taste of tennis’s big-time. “It was my first Slam here and I went out in the qualifying only to be given another chance as a lucky loser,” he recalled.
And how he took advantage of that stroke of luck, beating Radek Stepanek and Arnaud Clement in five-setters and even giving Roger Federer a momentary scare by taking the first set off the great man in the fourth round.
“When I came back from here to Belgium, it was a big change. I came back to my city and suddenly I was walking a little bit with my girlfriend in the street and it was completely different as people started to recognise me in the street.
“It was not easy because all of a sudden after that there was a lot of expectations from everybody, from the fans, the media, and it was not easy to manage. But it was an important experience and I’ve since learned how to manage that side of things with a lot of experience on the tour.”
In 2016, Goffin went one better by reaching the quarter-finals and he looked to be on course for another stirring run last year until he suffered the most unfortunate of accidents in the third round, injuring his right ankle when he tripped on a tarpaulin by the side of the court while in control of his match with Horacio Zeballos.
It wiped out his grass-court season and he had to fight back to full fitness before ending his individual 2017 campaign spectacularly by beating both Rafa Nadal and Federer en route to finishing runner-up to Grigor Dimitrov in the end-of-season ATP Finals.
He suffered another blow in February when struck in the left eye by a ball which ricocheted off his racquet frame, an injury which disrupted his Spring campaign, but reaching the semi-finals in Barcelona and the quarters in Rome suggested some of his best clay-court form could be on its way at Roland-Garros.
Certainly, these days, he is a different figure to that nervy 2012 novice. “I now manage the job better. I’m more relaxed, I don’t spend too much energy and I’m not so nervous any more. It’s not easy but I try to stay calm in every situation. For me, its the best way even if sometimes when I try to stay calm, inside I’m not calm.”
Goffin remains one of the tour’s nice guys. Indeed, he conceded last summer that those who think he’s perhaps too nice may have a point.
“I have people around me who tell me ‘just say what you have to say and want to say’ but sometimes I am too nice, I don’t want to hurt anyone in my team or my family.
“So, yes, I have to be more ruthless than I used to be. When you are a tennis player, in the top 10, you have a lot of people around you and you are like the boss of your own company.
“You have some tough moments, and happy moments of course with your friends and team - but sometimes you have to take the tough decisions when you are the boss.”
On the idea that weighing in at 68 kilos and 1.80 metres, he is leading the way for smaller guys on the tour, he says: “That’s fine. I’m happy to have that kind of body too.
“I have a different style of game and maybe that’s why people love to watch me play, because when I’m playing against a player like, say, Raonic, Cilic or Isner, it’s a completely opposite style of game.
“I try to find some solutions to the power, trying to make them run a lot but I’m not that small at 1.80m even if there a lot of big guys at 1.90m and bigger, but I do have different weapons in my bag.”
And does he have a Grand Slam in him? “Why not? I’m 27, I’ve got a lot of good years ahead, hopefully my best so you never know. You might have a week when you feel unbelievable. Cilic did it, Wawrinka has done three times. Raonic and Nishikori made a final as well.
“I’ll keep working for it and if one day I can make it, it would be unbelievable.” And knowing the big little man’s record, wouldn’t it be fitting if it happened at Roland-Garros?