Editor’s Note: This story was originally published 2 June 2019.
To many, it might seem like a forgettable moment, a request typical of a player to a coach. But to coach Carsten Arriens, what Jan-Lennard Struff said to him during his first-round match at Roland Garros explains everything about why his player has a chance to upset No. 1 Novak Djokovic on Monday and reach the Roland Garros quarter-finals.
Struff was down 0-3 against #NextGenATP Canadian Denis Shapovalov. But more importantly, the German couldn’t see his coach during changeovers.
Arriens and Struff’s physio, Uwe Liedtke, were seated in a corner behind a baseline, and, during sitdowns, the chair umpire was blocking Struff’s view of them.
For years, Arriens had asked Struff if he minded where he sat. “Oh, no. I don’t care,” the soft-spoken Struff would say, waving off the question.
But lately, in between and away from the tramlines, Struff has been speaking up more often and showing that he’s not OK just going along with the flow – a pattern that’s extended to his tennis.
After the first changeover, Struff rose from his chair, walked over to his coach and, before play resumed, instructed Arriens in the way only a self-described “quiet guy, enjoying life” could.
“Hey,” Struff said, “Can you sit somewhere else, please?”
To Arriens, it was a moment to celebrate. “Yes! Yes!” he said, pumping his fist as he recalled the story in the players’ restaurant beneath Court Philippe Chatrier.
Struff was taking control of the situation, which is why his coach says he’s into the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time and, as Arriens predicted last December, is having the best season of his career at 29 years old.
“He’s becoming a person with an opinion and telling the opinion and I can see that on the court,” Arriens told ATPTour.com.
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Struff had reached two Grand Slam third rounds (2018 Wimbledon, 2018 US Open) before making the Round of 16 this fortnight, beating 17th seed Shapovalov, Delray Beach champion Radu Albot and 13th seed Borna Coric. He’ll face 2016 champion Djokovic for a place in his first Grand Slam quarter-final.
From 2014-2018, Struff went 2-13 against Top 10 opponents. But this year, he’s 3-2, including victories earlier this clay-court season against Stefanos Tsitsipas and Marin Cilic.
“I like the game on clay. You have a little bit more time. I have hard groundstrokes, and I have time to set them up,” Struff told ATPTour.com.
But the German, despite growing up on the surface, never had the results he’s had this year, which, Arriens said, is because he’s never been as intentional as he is now.
In the past four years, it didn’t matter the topic, Struff would often waffle or defer to his natural politeness.
Practising? He’d groove the ball nice and easy down the middle so the other player could have a good session. Hungry? “Oh, you choose the restaurant, you choose the restaurant,” Struff would say. If he played against fellow Germans, Arriens said, Struff always felt like he needed to be friendly while playing.
Arriens would encourage him to be more decisive. He’d warn him that not choosing a restaurant might also lead to not following his forehand to the net.
“Listen, this is exactly the pattern on the court when you don’t know what to do and you’re just following whatever,” Arriens remembers telling him. “I want you to be consciously following a pattern on the court and a game plan, but in order to do that, you have to decide and you have to choose.”
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Struff would waver during matches: Sometimes he’d hang back, other times he’d go forward. But lately, and especially the past eight months, Struff has been intentional on the court.
He’s attacking – at Roland Garros, he’s gone to net 129 times, winning 66 per cent of those attempts (86/129) – and he’s questioning Arriens every day about how they work.
“Before he was just following, not asking. Now it’s, ‘Why do we do this exercise, and what is it for? We should do it this way,’” Arriens said.
Struff gives his input on match game plans as well. “Maybe we should do 1, 2 and 4 and not 3,” Arriens said. “When it’s clear, he’s coming back to it all the time. If he’s losing [the plan] for a game or two, he’s coming back to it.”
The plan has been working: come forward as often as possible, stay out of the corners, and keep the points short. Let his emotions, and the crowd, help him as well.
In the first game of Struff’s third-round match against Coric, which the German won 4-6, 6-1, 4-6, 7-6(1), 11-9, Struff was following his plan to be more vocal, shouting, “Come on!” and clenching his fist.
“Two years ago, three years ago, he wouldn’t do that once in a match,” Arriens said. “He’s 29, but he’s still developing a lot.”
His peers have noticed. Shapovalov, who went 1-1 against Struff during the clay-court season, called him a “dark horse”.
“He’s a guy you don’t want to see in the draw,” Shapovalov, No. 24 in the ATP Rankings, said of Struff, No. 45.
Coric, after his four-hour and 22-minute match with the German, added: “He’s not afraid.”
The praise matters to Struff, but not as much as a win against Djokovic and a place in the last eight would.
“With the quotes from Shapo I realise, OK, they have a high opinion of me as well,” Struff told ATPTour.com. “It feels good to hear that but I try to work on that, to get my ranking higher and higher so that the opinion gets even better.”
If Struff shocks Djokovic, the world’s opinion – and his coach’s of him – would jump to its highest level yet, and his coach would, no question, have another moment to celebrate.