Opportunism

By Siddhant Guru

Casper Ruud is in his first French Open Final. The Norwegian, who had never made it past the 3rd Round prior to the start of the tournament, beat Marin Cilic in 4 sets to set up a final clash against the ageless Rafael Nadal.

Ruud was in the much-derided bottom half of the draw and was, by far, the second best Clay court player in that half. Ruud hasn’t been particularly at his best in this Clay season with early losses to Dimitrov in Monte Carlo, Pablo Carreño Busta in Barcelona, Van De Zandschulp in Munich and to Lajovic in Madrid. Until Rome, his record in the Clay season was 4-4. Since the start of Rome, it is 13-1.

His comparatively slower start to the Clay season is somewhat reminiscent of post prime Novak Djokovic who usually takes one or two Clay court tournaments to make the necessary adjustments. I noticed the same problems as Djokovic for Ruud after Munich.

Ruud found that right balance at Geneva. Even in Rome, it wasn’t quite perfect though he managed to win against decently good opponents but Geneva was where he found his feet(Quite literally). He has carried that form into Roland Garros.

The Path To The Final

Ruud began his campaign with an emotional match against the retiring Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – tight 4 set match that saw Tsonga injure his shoulder just before the 4th set tiebreak – a sad end to the career of a magnificent player.

A relatively comfortable second round followed before an almighty scare against Lorenzo Sonego, with Ruud having to come from 2 sets to 1 down to sneak through into the fourth round – a key statistic from that match being that Ruud didn’t face a single break point in the last two sets and broke Sonego’s serve both times that he fashioned a breakpoint opportunities.

The Fourth Round was when chaos unfurled in the bottom half of the draw. Stefanos Tsitsipas, one of the heavy favorites for the title, fell meekly to 19 year old Holger Rune. 11th seed Jannik Sinner, was forced to retire in his match vs Andrey Rublev due to a left knee injury. Second Seed Daniil Medvedev, now considered as one of the favorites to make the final, was utterly defeated by Marin Čilić – If there’s an accurate personification of chaos, a randomly peaking Marin Čilić would be that person.

Amidst this, Casper Ruud quietly saw off the challenge of Hubert Hurkacz to make his first ever French Open Quarterfinal. What followed was a tense and bitter battle against Holger Rune with the 19 year old accusing Ruud of being… rude towards him during the match and in the locker room. A come-from-behind win against Čilić in the semifinals took him to his first Grand Slam final.

What has worked?

The Ruud serve has been the key shot so far. The following is a table displaying his serving numbers this season on Clay prior to Rome and his serving numbers since the start of Rome.

StatisticsBefore Rome MastersSince Rome Masters
Service points won percentage63%70%
First serve won percentage71%75%
First serve percentage60%69%

As we can see, there’s been a significant improvement in serving performance for Ruud since the start of Rome. His ace percentage has remained largely similar at about 6% (a very healthy number on Clay) throughout the season and his serve speeds have also remained about the same at an average of 185kmph. His improved first serve percentages have allowed him to then dominate with his Forehand as the first shot after the serve.

Case in point: 3rd set vs Holger Rune. After dropping the second set, Ruud put in a stunning serving performance, landing 75% of first serves and winning an equal number of service points, while also putting considerable pressure on the Rune serve. In the tiebreak, he didn’t drop a point on his own serve.

Or take his performance against Marin Čilić: After dropping the first set, Ruud hit 16 aces in the last 3 sets, outperforming Čilić 63-44 in the shorter rallies (<5 shots). To understand how impressive that is, it’s important to point out that Čilić actually had a higher first serve percentage in the match. Čilić’s contrasting victories over the Russian duo of Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev had one thing in common – he had the measure of them in the shorter rallies, dominating with his serve. Ruud blunted that weapon with some very good returns and some errors from Čilić.

In this admittedly fortunate run for Ruud, two of his qualities stand out – his composure even when behind in a match as witnessed vs Sonego and Čilić, and his opportunistic nature, taking full advantage of a draw that opened up very kindly for him, as top players kept falling off.

What next?

Up next for Casper Ruud is the man who has stopped countless deserving players from winning a French Open title, the man who is going for a scarcely believable 14th French Open and the man who Ruud considers as his idol – Rafael Nadal.

Does Ruud have a chance? Honestly, it will take a miracle for him to win. They haven’t faced each other in a competitive match but have practiced together – Ruud says that the Spaniard “wins almost every set, even close ones”.

Ruud can take confidence from the fact that Rafa has been pushed the hardest by another player who put in a very strong display of serve + 1 tennis – Felix Auger-Aliassime. Ruud is currently ranked No 1 by Infosys in terms of first serves made and first serves won in this tournament. He will need to bring out his best serving display of the season on Sunday.

Casper Ruud will rise to a new career high of World No 6 on Monday. Regardless of the result on Sunday, he can be very proud of his season so far. He is only going to get better and better.

P.S. I can’t share a picture since it was a private whatsapp conversation –  Before the Clay season, one person whose opinions I respect, had said to me that Ruud’s serve + 1 has been the most effective weapon of any top player in the 2022 season. We’re seeing its effectiveness in this tournament.

Ruud On The Rise: Casper Ruud celebrates reaching his first major final at the French Open. Source: French Open Youtube

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