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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Flying Finn Ruusuvuori biggest threat for India in Davis Cup tie

On paper, Austria was expected to run away with the tie. They eventually won 3-2, but only after a deciding set tie-breaker in the fifth match. And it reached that far only because of Ruusuvuori’s heroics.

Written by Shahid Judge |
Updated: September 16, 2021 1:07:19 pm
Emil RuusuvuoriRuusuvuori started 2019 ranked 402 and finished it at 121. (AP)

Austria led Finland 2-1 in a Davis Cup World Group Playoff tie in 2019 when Dominic Thiem stepped on court. The World No. 5 was the biggest name in the tie – a two-time French Open finalist at the time – as he prepared to face a little-known player named Emil Ruusuvuori. This was the first time the youngster was up against a top 10 player. But that made little difference to him as he pulled off a 6-3, 6-2 upset.

On paper, Austria was expected to run away with the tie. They eventually won 3-2, but only after a deciding set tie-breaker in the fifth match. And it reached that far only because of Ruusuvuori’s heroics.

“That was a long day, and I didn’t expect it,” Austrian captain Stefan Koubek was quoted as saying.

Ruusuvuori had already been turning heads through his progress up the charts. He started 2019 ranked 402 and finished it at 121. But it was at the Espoo Metro Areena – a facility used mainly for ice hockey – where he picked up his career’s biggest win. On Friday, now ranked 74, he will take to the same court when he leads the Finnish charge against the travelling Indians for a Davis Cup playoff spot.

The 22-year-old was just five when he started playing tennis. He was introduced to the sport when a local coach spotted him playing badminton with his mother near their home in Helsinki. Now he is the highest-ranked singles player that will feature in the tie this weekend.

The match-up was originally scheduled for September last year but was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the interim, Finland’s spearhead managed to break into the top 100 for the first time in his career and has never fallen back into three digits for over a week. And there’s no surprise in his upward trajectory.

Big game hunter

Ruusuvuori reached the semi-finals of the Nur Sultan ATP event last year, and also made the last-four stage of ATP events in Winston-Salem and Atlanta in the past few months. And Thiem has not been his only top-10 scalp.

In March, competing in his first-ever ATP 1000 Masters, he came from behind to upset then World No. 7 Alexander Zverev in Miami. It was a match that saw the Finn’s ability to seamlessly change strategy. In the first set, he tried to redirect Zverev’s firepower. When that didn’t work, he started to vary his game. His made liberal use of topspin, slice and drop shots. He started to strike the ball early as well, giving Zverev less time to react, and came to the net often to finish off points.

Pulling off a comeback win – after losing the first set – is something he’s done against both the Indian players he is likely to face this weekend. He beat World No. 187 and India No. 3 Ramkumar Ramanathan 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 when they met at a Challenger event in Canberra last year. Earlier this year, Ruusuvuori beat India No. 1 Prajnesh Gunneswaran (ranked 165) 2-6, 6-1, 6-1 at the Washington DC ATP event.

In between the two matches, he was even invited to train with Rafael Nadal during the 2020 off-season.

A change in Davis Cup rules last season ended the zonal segregation in Group 1. Which is how India, a team that would play in the erstwhile Asia/Oceania group, could draw Europe’s Finland. India had generally been strong in the zonal Group 1 stages – they’ve reached the World Group Playoffs for the past seven years. The Finns, however, will be the strongest team they’ve come up against in the group stage in that time.

And Ruusuvuori is the biggest player they would have faced at this stage of the competition.

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