Casper Ruud: who is Norway’s new tennis sensation?

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Last week Carlos Alcaraz claimed his maiden Grand Slam title and the world number one ranking at the US Open, cementing his position as the rising star of men’s tennis. His opponent was less of a household name, but Casper Ruud’s quiet, under-the-radar journey up the rankings to world number two also merits praise. 

Ruud, aged 23, beat British hope Kyle Edmund in the first round, dismantled 13th seed Matteo Berrettini in straight sets in the quarterfinals and 27th seed Karen Khachanov in four sets in the semis, setting up his second Grand Slam final.

There he lost to Alcaraz in four sets — 4-6, 6-2, 6-7, 3-6 — but impressed with his tenacity and ability to play Alcaraz at his own game, in a match full of lengthy rallies where each player took turns looking beaten before inexplicably conjuring the winning shot out of thin air.

After a nervy first set, Ruud raised his level, capitalising on increasing Alcaraz errors to take the second, but Alcaraz dug himself out of trouble when down set point in the third. Ruud never really recovered from a terrible tiebreak and the writing was on the wall.

This match was the first in the Open era with both a maiden major title and the top world ranking awaiting the winner. For many tennis fans, it was also a precursor of what’s to come, amidst endless speculation about the twilight of the ‘Big Three’ era. With Roger Federer announcing his retirement this week, that speculation will only intensify.

Tennis loves a comparison and, while it may be unfair to compare playing styles, Ruud certainly has the calm, undemonstrative on-court demeanour of the Swiss giant, as well as the sportsmanship, conceding a point to Alcaraz when already down a break, after the umpire missed an error.

It remains to be seen whether Ruud will be able to channel Federer’s composure in key moments, as he struggled after losing the momentum in the third set and did not seriously challenge in the fourth.

Tennis is full of talented young players, with a lot of promise but few chances to excel given the dominance of Federer, Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. But after an impressive showing at two Slams this year, more eyes will be on Casper Ruud.

Ruud impressed with his tenacity and ability to play Alcaraz at his own game.

But where did he come from? Ruud is the highest-ranked Norwegian player in history, an honour that was previously held by his father — and coach — Christian. Since 2018 Ruud has mainly been based at the illustrious Rafael Nadal Academy in Mallorca, and the intensive training has clearly paid off.

After a successful junior career, he began 2016 as the junior world number one, before debuting professionally and climbing to world number 225 in the ATP rankings by the end of the season. Over the next couple of years, he struggled to find consistency, but finally broke into the top 100 in 2019 — 25 years after his father did.

In 2020 he won the Argentina Open, becoming the first Norwegian to win an ATP Tour title. This success was followed by an outstanding 2021, winning five more ATP titles – including three in three weeks, which had not been achieved since Andy Murray in 2011. He reached the semi-finals of the end-of-year ATP Finals and ended the year as world number eight.

This year, he defended his titles at the Geneva Open and Swiss Open Gstaad, won in Argentina again, and enjoyed a spectacular run at the French Open, becoming the first Norwegian man to reach a major final. He lost to Rafael Nadal in straight sets, but he was already in contention for the world number one spot at the season’s final major.

Ruud plays what Martina Navratilova described at the US Open as “steady tennis”: without the flair and physicality of Alcaraz, or the sheer entertainment of Nick Kyrgios, but with grit and determination, powerful groundstrokes and an improving game at the net.

His detractors accuse him of “vulturing” — artificially inflating his ranking by winning lower-circuit tournaments — and argue that his wealth of titles is less impressive given that all but one has come on clay.

Those detractors might find their argument weakened by Ruud’s impressive showing on the Flushing Meadows hard court, and by a catalogue of wins against top players. (Incidentally, more than half of Nadal’s record-beating 22 major titles have come on clay — which has hardly precluded him from dominance on other surfaces.)

It remains to be seen whether Ruud’s stellar 2022 form will continue, how he will bounce back from two Grand Slam final losses, and whether he’ll be able to go one step further — but it seems clear that Norwegian tennis, for now, is in pretty safe hands.

Image: Mirsasha via Flickr

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