How David Goffin climbed in the rankings by punching above his weight

Tennis


France clinched its first Davis Cup championship in 16 years Sunday at home in Lille, but Belgium’s David Goffin didn’t make it easy.

Goffin stands 5-foot-11, and he looks even smaller thanks to his fighting weight of 150 pounds, but he played with considerably more heft in Lille. He kept the underdog Belgians in contention until the fifth and final match, logging high-quality singles wins over Lucas Pouille and, in the critical fourth-match battle between the countries’ No. 1 players, power-serving veteran Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

This is becoming business as usual for the 26-year-old Belgian. His Davis Cup record for the year (all in singles) is 6-0. In addition to the Frenchmen, that includes a win over heavily hyped Australian Nick Kyrgios. Goffin arrived in Lille fresh off his surprising runner-up finish at the ATP World Tour Finals, propelled by back-to-back wins in London over Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and sporting a career-high ranking of No. 7.

After Goffin lost an excruciatingly close WTF final in London to Grigor Dimitrov, he told reporters that he was a “better player, mentally.” But he was quick to add that he was also stronger physically. That wasn’t necessarily an easy sell, because Goffin perpetually looks like he could use a decent meal. But the fleet and frail-looking right-hander powered through the last event on the tennis calendar for 2017 like an ironman.

It’s remarkable how far Goffin has progressed since the world first noticed him, a 21-year-old lucky loser whose appearance in the fourth-round of the French Open struck some as a prank. His opponent was the man whose likeness dominated the wall of young David Goffin’s bedroom, Federer.

Goffin was a great source of amusement in that match, but he also provided a preview of what was to come — albeit gradually — in that encounter. He was nimble, creative and armed with all the shots. His weaknesses were his size and lack of power, but over time Goffin has turned his quickness and variety into the weapon pundits once said he lacked.

“Goffin finds ways to take time away from his opponents, and he’s always moving forward,” Tennis Channel commentator James Blake said on air.

“I played deeper and faster,” Goffin said about his win against Tsonga, providing a Cliff Notes summary of his game.

That game hit full bloom this year, after Goffin was forced off the tour for more than six weeks by an ankle injury he suffered in the course of his third-round match at the French Open. He was ranked No. 14 when he returned in late July, but in the fall he won back-to-back events, in Shenzhen and Tokyo, for his first wins after six consecutive losses in finals. In October, his losing streak to former idol Federer stretched to six matches in the semifinals at Basel, but Goffin turned the tables on the ATP’s No. 2 at the World Tour Finals.

For years now, pundits and even many coaches have been saying that big men (6-foot-3 and taller) are inevitably taking over the game. While there’s some evidence for that (6-foot-6 Alexander Zverev already is ranked No. 4, and has been as high as No. 3, at age 20), the reality is that tennis has a rich, continuous history of successful “small” men. At 6-foot-1, neither Federer nor Nadal qualify as big men.

Moreover, fans and the media love the little guys and the underdog aura that surrounds them, especially when they are successful. David Ferrer, much loved and once ranked as high as No. 3, is 36 years old and fading. He is 5-foot-9 but outweighs Goffin by 10 pounds.

Tennis may have found its new David Ferrer in Goffin.



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