Casper Ruud has won eight titles on tour – seven of them on clay and one of them this year. He is ranked as high as World No.8, becoming the first player from Norway to make the top 10 of the world rankings.
The 23-year-old has quickly become one of the most reliable claycourters around at the moment, but despite all of that, few would have picked him to make the final at Roland Garros this year.
Ruud navigated multiple tricky assignments on his way to the final. He first had to overcome French tennis legend Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – who was playing the final event of his career – in a supremely emotional encounter.
His quarterfinal was against 19-year-old Holger Rune, who dumped one of the tournament favourites Stefanos Tsitsipas out of the fourth round and he later took on Marin Cilic, who defeated fellow Russians and top 10 seeds Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev.
Each of these victories were in four sets, and for a player who has little best-of-five experience, this illustrates how his claycourt consistency on tour – last year, he became the first man in 10 years to win three consecutive titles in as many weeks – has translated to success at Majors.
Success on clay
For much of his career, Ruud has been considered a specialist on the red dirt. While he did win a hardcourt title at last year’s San Diego Open, so much of his game is tailormade for clay. Ruud’s footspeed and court coverage is solid, and the depth of his groundstrokes allow him to dictate the longer baseline exchanges.
But, the Norwegian’s most distinct threat is a sledgehammer of a forehand, which he employs with a ton of spin allowing the ball to bounce very high and push his opponent to the back of the court. The shot’s adaptability and versatility have a huge role to play, and it is what sets him apart from other claycourt specialists, perhaps also explaining his solid results on other surfaces.
When needed, the 23-year-old is able to flatten his forehand and chase more precise angle. When he runs around his backhand to hit the shot inside-out, he is able to find the depth and low net clearance to consistently hit winners.
Rain is forecasted in Paris on Sunday, and in that case, with the roof going up and the humid conditions kicking in, Ruud’s ability to flatten his forehand when required may well give him an edge.
Student vs Master
The fact that Ruud’s biggest weapon is his forehand may have something to do with his childhood idol – the man he will be going toe-to-toe with for the very first time at Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday.
“It was worth the wait (to play Nadal). As a Grand Slam final, it will be a special moment for me, and hopefully for him as well,” Ruud said on court after his semifinal win.
Every time Nadal takes on one of the better young claycourters on tour, the headlines are invariably dominated by the long-drawn-out narrative of the master taking on the latest upstart. The unprecedented king of clay taking on the latest prince in waiting – be it Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas, or Carlos Alcaraz.
This time around, however, it will be hard to stray away from that storyline, given that Ruud is actually a disciple of the Spaniard. Since before he broke into the top 100 on tour, the 23-year-old had been to the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, run by the Spaniard’s former coach and uncle Toni, as well as other members of his team and family.
Ruud is yet to face Nadal on tour, but back at the academy, the duo frequently play practice matches and as the Norwegian jokingly admitted following his semifinal win, Ruud hardly ever wins.
“He has played many Grand Slam finals but at least he is playing a student from his academy this time, so it is hopefully going to be a fun one,” he said.
A record-extending 22nd Grand Slam and 14th Roland Garros title is at stake for Nadal on Sunday. If Ruud – the massive underdog – is to spoil the party, he will become the first Norwegian player to lift a singles Major trophy. Either way, those back at the academy in Mallorca will have their heads held high.