Casper Ruud: Former Academy trainee Rafa Nadal with a mace forehand

Casper Ruud has won six titles on tour, including five on clay and two this year. He is ranked No. 8 in the world, becoming the first Norwegian player to break into the top 10 in the world rankings.

The 23-year-old has quickly become one of the most reliable clay court players around, but despite all that, few would have chosen him to make the final at Roland Garros this year.

Ruud navigated several tricky missions on his way to the finale. He first had to defeat French tennis legend Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – who was playing the last event of his career – in an extremely moving encounter.

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His quarter-final was against 19-year-old Holger Rune, who knocked out tournament favorite Stefanos Tsitsipas in the fourth round and he then faced Marin Cilic, who beat fellow Russians and 10-seeded Andrey Rublev and Daniel Medvedev.

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Each of those wins has come in four sets, and for a player with little best-of-five experience, it illustrates just how consistent his clay-court appearance on tour is – last year he became the first man in 10 years to win three titles in a row as several weeks – translated into success at the Majors.

Success on clay

For much of his career, Ruud was considered a red-earth specialist. Although he won a hard-court title at the San Diego Open last year, much of his game is tailor-made for clay. Ruud’s speed and ground coverage are solid, and the depth of his groundstrokes allows him to dictate longer base rallies.

But the Norwegian’s most distinct threat is a forehand hammer, which he uses with a ton of spin allowing the ball to bounce high and push his opponent deep down the court. The adaptability and versatility of the stroke has a huge role to play, and this is what sets him apart from other clay-court specialists, perhaps explaining his solid results on other surfaces as well.

When needed, the 23-year-old is able to flatten his forehand and pursue a more precise angle. When running around his backhand to hit the inside shot, he is able to find the depth and low net clearance to consistently hit winners.

Rain is forecast in Paris on Sunday, and in that case, with the roof rising and wet conditions setting in, Ruud’s ability to flatten his forehand when needed could well give him an edge.

Student vs Master

The fact that Ruud’s greatest weapon is his forehand might have something to do with his childhood idol – the man he will face 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 too,” Ruud said on the pitch after his victory in semi final.

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Whenever Nadal takes on one of the best young clay players on tour, the headlines are invariably dominated by the long tale of the master taking on the latest upstart. The unprecedented clay king takes on the last prince in waiting – be it Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas or Carlos Alcaraz.

This time around, however, it will be hard to walk away from that story, given that Ruud is actually a disciple of the Spaniard. Before breaking into the top 100 on tour, the 23-year-old had attended the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, run by the Spaniard’s former coach and uncle Toni, along with other members of his squad. and his family.

Ruud has yet to face Nadal on tour, but back at the academy the duo frequently play practice matches and as the Norwegian jokingly admitted after their semi-final victory, Ruud hardly wins. never.

“He’s played a lot of Grand Slam finals, but at least he’s playing a student from his academy this time around, so hopefully it’ll be fun,” he said.

A record 22nd Grand Slam and 14th Roland Garros title are on the line for Nadal on Sunday. If Ruud – the huge underdog – should spoil the party, he will become the first Norwegian player to win a major singles trophy. Either way, those back at the Mallorca academy will have their heads held high.

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