Ruud Says Being Roland Garros Underdog Against Nadal Has Its Advantages

Casper Ruud (photo: Roland Garros video)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, June 5, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

It seems only fitting that Casper Ruud, who has been one of the ATP Tour’s best players on clay over the past two years, is finally getting to play against his childhood idol, Rafael Nadal, in his first major final.

On Sunday afternoon, rain or shine, the 8th-ranked Ruud, who is the first Norwegian man to reach a Grand Slam final, will face the 21-time major champion Nadal on Court Philippe-Chatrier. It’s the site of 13 of Nadal’s greatest Grand Slam title triumphs and the reason the Spaniard has been anointed as the King of Clay.

“It is amazing,” Ruud, 23, said Friday evening during his on-court interview with Eurosport’s Fabrice Santoro, after defeating No. 20 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia in four sets to advance to his first major final. “He is the last player of the Big 3 and the very top players in the world I have never played against.

“So, I guess this is perfect timing and worth the wait. To finally play him in a Grand Slam final will be a special moment for me. Hopefully, a little bit for him as well.

“He has played so many finals, but at least he is playing a student from his academy this time. So, it is going to be a fun one hopefully.”

Indeed, Ruud and Nadal are no strangers and have been hitting partners on a variety of surfaces at Nadal’s Academy in Mallorca. While the native of Oslo, Norway is taking nothing for granted in going up against the 36-year-old Nadal, Ruud understands that to face him in the title match of the major that he’s enjoyed his greatest success is probably the greatest challenge there is in tennis.

“I believe he’s 13-0 in the [French Open] finals, so [it] just shows that it might sound like an impossible task,” Ruud admitted. “But, of course, I will give it a shot like the other 13 people before me have done.

“It’s obviously going to be tough. We all know what a greatest champion he is and how well he plays in the biggest moments and the biggest matches.”

During this year’s Paris fortnight, Nadal was extended to five sets in back-to-back wins over World No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime and World No. 1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic during the fourth round and quarterfinals, respectively. Each match lasted more than four hours. On Friday, Nadal spent over three hours on court during his semifinal match before his opponent, World No. 3 Alexander Zverev, severely rolled his ankle and was forced to retire due to the injury. Nadal was ahead, 7-6 (8), 6-6. The victory was bittersweet for him.

Meanwhile, Ruud has played four four-set matches, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tonga, Hubert Hurkacz, Holger Rune and Cilic, and one five-setter in the third round against Lorenzo Sonego. His only straight-set win came in the second round against Emil Ruusuvuori. Surprisingly, Ruud has spent just six minutes fewer than Nadal on court. His six Paris victories has improved his 2022 win-loss record to 30-9, including 21-5 on clay.

Although Ruud is 10-0 in his last 10 matches on clay, slightly better than Nadal’s 8-2 mark, it should be remembered that he is going up against a very formidable opponent, who is 111-3 lifetime at the French Open. However, if Ruud is successful in upsetting Nadal, he would become the youngest men’s major title winner since Juan Martín del Porto won the 2009 US Open at age 20.

What does Nadal think of facing Ruud, who has won seven of his eight career ATP titles on clay, including last month at Geneva, and has 95 career wins on the red-dirt surface? “Casper is a professional. He has, I think, a very good character to play tennis,” he said. “He’s very relaxed, humble. He’s always in a positive mood about learning.

“I think in the Academy we were able to help him a little bit during this period of time, but more than another thing is about, as I always say, I like to see the good persons achieving his dreams.”

Going in as the underdog, Ruud understands, has its advantages. “I’m just going to try to enjoy it,” he said. “I will be the underdog, and I will try to, you know … dream about great winners and unbelievable rallies, because that’s what it’s going to take if I want to have any chance – and I will need to play my best tennis ever.

“I still have to believe that I can do it, and I think part of my game [Friday] was working very well,” Ruud added. “In the end, I was playing great in the third and fourth set.”

Ruud was asked during his post-match press conference Friday, after his 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 win against Cilic, how many of Nadal’s 13 French Open title wins he had seen.

“Probably all of them,” Ruud replied, breaking into a smile as he answered the reporter’s question. “I think I could probably tell you all the finals and who he has played and who he has beaten, because I watched them all on TV.

“It’s going to be, yeah, amazing to be there myself when you have seen players like, start with Puerta, Federer, Djokovic, Thiem, all the guys who have played him in a final, Wawrinka. So, to be a part of that group myself is something I can always brag about after my career.

“Hopefully, like I said, I will of course give it a shot at the title, and would be nicer to be able to brag about the title as well after my career.”

Sunday’s French Open order of play

By the numbers

• Two days after celebrating his 36th birthday, Rafael Nadal has a chance to add to his Roland Garros list of historic accomplishments. If he beats Casper Ruud in Sunday’s French Open men’s singles final, he would surpass fellow Spaniard Andres Gimeno as the oldest Roland Garros men’s singles champion in tournament history. Gimeno, who defeated Patrick Proisy to win the 1972 title, set the record 50 years ago at age 34 and 10 months.

“Quotable …”

“Physically I’m OK. Normally my problem is not the physical performance. … Of course today the conditions have been very hot, super humid. I know from experience that when these conditions happen, I suffer a little bit more in terms of [physicality].”

Rafael Nadal, asked about his physical condition during his post-match press conference following his Friday semifinal match against Alexander Zverev.