By Stephen Ratte
Of the four debuting players at last year’s ATP Finals, Norwegian Casper Ruud may have been the most surprising. Sure, Cam Norrie came out of nowhere, but he was an alternate that only played after Tsitsipas withdrew with an injury. But here was Ruud, at the tender age of 22, making his finals debut. His five titles in 2021 tied him with Novak Djokovic and put him one behind Alexander Zverev, both of whom shared the center stage at the ATP Finals with him. But what makes his qualification different, and why isn’t he talked about as one of the more exciting up and coming “NextGen” players? Let’s take a look at Ruud’s resume.
To start, Ruud is a clay specialist, and there aren’t many who are better than him on the dirt. He’s made the semifinals in the last three clay Masters 1000 events he’s participated in, earned his first career top five win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid last year, and all but one of his seven career singles titles have come on clay. He is the first clay specialist to reach the ATP Finals since probably Thiem in 2016, although the Austrian had won titles on both grass and hard courts that year.
Being such a fan of the clay, though, is something people use to try to discredit Ruud. Some may say that the anti-clay bias was a way to discredit Nadal early on in his rivalry with Federer, but it certainly hasn’t been helped by a few high profile cases of clay-hating players making quite clear to the public what they think about the surface. There was Medvedev, who straight up said in a press conference, “I’m not hiding this — I don’t like clay.” Then there’s Nick Kyrgios, who’s been critical both of clay and Ruud himself. Whether we like it or not, some amount of fan perception of a surface will be shaped by these players’ opinions and Kyrgios’s comments on Ruud’s 2021 were far from glowing. Though he did say that Ruud was a “good player” he also added, “we all know you stealing points through those tournaments,” referring to Ruud’s clay tournament titles.
Let’s talk about those tournaments. Ruud won five titles in 2021, four on clay and one on a hard court, and they were all 250-level events. His first of the year was in Geneva in the run up to Roland Garros and was set to be the triumphant return of number one seed Roger Federer on home soil. Those hopes were dashed when Federer lost to Pablo Andújar in round one, and Ruud capitalized, beating Andújar in the semis and Denis Shapovalov in the final. No criticism so far. But what brought on Kyrgios’s comments came later in the year, during the bizarrely positioned clay court swing that comes after Wimbledon and before the U.S. Open. These smaller tournaments did not attract a particularly notable field, and the highest ranked opponent Ruud played across all three events was Benoît Paire. It’s a busy part of the calendar, and players have to pick and choose which route they take, but with Ruud’s first title of the three coming while higher ranking players took part in the 500 event in Hamburg, and his third coinciding with the Tokyo Olympics, the competition was perhaps not as fierce as it could have been. This maybe wasn’t as impressive as some others’ tournament wins, but hey, three titles in a row is a great show of consistency.
What Ruud needed was a good showing on something other than clay, both to prove to the world of tennis that he wasn’t one dimensional and also to gain the ranking points necessary to make the top eight by the end of the year. And he did that… kind of. He won his fifth title of the year in San Diego, beating Murray, Sonego, Dimitrov, and Cam Norrie to do so. Not a half bad run, and his first non-clay title to boot. His disappointing second round exit at the US Open notwithstanding, he managed quarterfinal appearances at the final three Masters 1000 events of the year, losing to Tsitsipas, Zverev, and Zverev again in Toronto, Cincinnati, and Paris respectively. All of these losses were straight sets and not particularly competitive, however, putting doubt on his ability to make much of a dent at the ATP Finals he had qualified for.
Did he prove the doubters wrong at the finals? Well again… kind of. He got out of his group as the eighth seed in the tournament, which I suppose exceeded expectations. But he certainly benefited from Tsitispas’s injury withdrawal which left him facing alternate Cam Norrie instead. Once he reached the semis, he was swept aside by Daniil Medvedev in short order.
So Ruud had a breakout season in 2021, there’s no denying it. But how much faith can we put in his rise going forward? His hard court results have been better, but he certainly doesn’t stack up on the surface with other young talents even a tier below the big title contenders. And that is partially down to his style of play and the weapons at his disposal. In his own words in an ATP interview, “I’m not the big, you know, flash player with the big shots and the big trick shots.”
It’s true that he doesn’t wow you with any one shot. He doesn’t have the powerful groundstrokes of someone like Jannik Sinner or the serve of someone like Hubert Hurkacz to compare him to some of his young contemporaries. If there is one thing that stands out about his game, it’s his big forehand and his movement (especially on defense), two skills that compliment his clay court game very well. However, he tends to get overpowered on faster courts. Additionally, while his clay results have been good, he has never made it past round three at Roland-Garros. He’s a tough one to gauge, and could easily be seen as an anomaly in the top ten, a flash in the pan who took advantage of some sub-par competition in a year where many top players were injured or otherwise who will fade back into the lower rankings.
But Ruud doesn’t see it that way. In that same interview, he talked about how he sees himself as someone who’s worthy to be out there with the best on the big courts. He even points out how players like Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem were once considered clay court specialists, and look how they turned out. It’s a lofty comparison to make, but is it possible? Maybe. He’ll have to undergo a transition much like Thiem did in the past few years. He’ll need to flatten out more of his shots and develop his groundstrokes to take advantage of faster courts. He will need to put some work into his serve to make it work for him more than it does now. He’ll have to elude injuries as well as he can.
Injuries are a caveat attached to projections for all tennis players, but Ruud has had a few scares already at 23. He had to retire from last year’s Australian Open and Acapulco tournaments due to injury, and missed this year’s Happy Slam as well due to an ankle injury obtained before the event began. In the intervening month since missing the year’s first slam, Ruud added another title to his mantle. It was a 250 event, played on clay, his second such title earned in Buenos Aires. And while that certainly reemphasizes that Ruud can beat solid but not spectacular fields at these smaller events, it doesn’t prove anything new, at least not to my eyes.
Casper Ruud seems for all the world to be a likable guy. And he clearly is a good tennis player. But these days, to be exceptional you have to play well on all courts. You have to do more than just one thing well. If he wants to follow the trajectory of a Nadal or a Thiem, proving to the world sooner rather than later that he isn’t as one dimensional as he sometimes seems is a must. He has a full season ahead to prove that his top ten finish in 2021 was no fluke. Can he rise to the challenge?