How Ruud Plans To Follow In Nadal & Thiem's Footsteps
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on 31 October 2019. Casper Ruud beat Matteo Berrettini on Saturday at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia to reach his first ATP Masters 1000 semi-final.
#NextGenATP Norwegian Casper Ruud's career is young. But it’s clear that the 20-year-old’s best surface at the moment is clay. He has won more than 60 per cent of his matches on the dirt compared to just 36 per cent on hard courts, and he has not yet earned a victory on grass.
Although some may see that as a weakness for Ruud, the first-time Next Gen ATP Finals qualifier embraces it as a strength. He wants to be the next clay king.
“I’ve always looked up to Rafa a lot and players like him and Thiem, they play with great intensity and in some matches. When you look at them, they’ve kind of already won the match, it seems like, before they walk on the court because their opponent knows it’s going to be so tough to beat them on clay,” Ruud said. “That’s a point I would like to get to in my career. When I step on a clay court, [I want] the guy on the other side of the net to think, ‘Oh, this guy is a really, really good player and I’ll have to play my best tennis for three hours if I’ll have a chance to beat him.’”
The way Ruud sees it, he is more comfortable on clay than most #NextGenATP players.
“I feel like I’m one of the younger guys who maybe prefers to play on clay over hard court... I think it’s a good opportunity for me to be able to do well on clay courts the next, hopefully, 15 years because none of the new ones, except Thiem, who is a little older than us, has done unbelievably good on clay yet,” Ruud said. “I’m thinking that could be an open spot to be a new ‘clay-court guy’ among the Next Gen.”
Ruud, who made the 2017 Rio de Janeiro semi-finals just two months after his 18th birthday, got a chance to flex his clay muscles at Roland Garros this year, making the third round of a major for the first time. But across the net stood 2009 champion Roger Federer, who admitted before the match that he knew more about Ruud’s father — former World No. 39 Christian Ruud — than he did about the #NextGenATP star. Federer won in straight sets, with the third set going to a tie-break.
“I like a lot in his game. Today I saw the clay-courter. But I'm sure he's also got the hard-court game in him, and I think he's going to be obviously easily [reach the] Top 50, Top 20, hopefully soon,” Federer said. “From then on, anything is possible at some stage once you get in the Top 20.”
Ruud began training at the Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar last July, and he climbed to a career-high of No. 54 in the ATP Rankings just more than a year later. Nadal's best friend, Tomeu Silva, who has travelled with Nadal himself and Jaume Munar, has also spent some time with Ruud.
The Norwegian has shown in 2019 that he is capable of good results on hard courts, not just clay, making the quarter-finals in St. Petersburg, where he fell in three sets against eventual finalist Borna Coric.
“I like to go around and play heavy on the forehand, which obviously bites more on clay and it’s harder to receive a heavy ball on clay than on hard court,” Ruud said. “It’s not like I feel uncomfortable on hard courts or anything like that, but I think we just figured out that clay is maybe the surface that fits my game the most for now.”
Christian Ruud, who has climbed higher in the ATP Rankings than any other player in Norway’s history, knows that his son must continue raising his level on other surfaces if he is to continue his ascent on the ATP Tour.
“I think that his goal is to become a top player, and I think he’s dreaming about No. 1 in the world and you have to play well on all the surfaces to do that,” Christian said. “This year the goal was to be Top 100 when we started the year and it was natural for him to pick mostly clay when he had the chance because maybe he has [a better] chance to do well there. But he is showing me that he could also play well on hard courts.”
One of the reasons for Ruud’s 2019 success — and Milan qualification — was his consistency. After making the Rio de Janeiro semi-finals in February 2017, he could not maintain the momentum for the rest of the year, failing to win an ATP Tour match after Barcelona in April. This year, he has earned 22 of his 39 career tour-level wins, including a trip to his maiden ATP Tour final in Houston.
“I think his lowest level has come up a lot. He’s been playing a lot better at ATP events and winning a lot more matches and also beating decent players when he’s not been playing his best, so I think his high level has increased as well as his low level,” Christian said. “I think it’s sometimes difficult when you’re very young and do good results. You have one week where everything is working, like in Rio in 2017… it came a little bit quick. There are still a lot of good players on the Challenger Tour.
"I think this year has been more consistent. He’s just been learning more and getting more experience and everything has improved.”
Ruud will hope that translates to Milan. And although the season-ending 21-and-under event is contested on an indoor hard court, the Norwegian is plenty excited to test himself against the world’s best #NextGenATP stars. He even feels that since it’s not on clay, he’ll be able to play with his "shoulders down", and not feel as much pressure.
“I’m feeling like I’m close to achieving big results, even on hard courts,” Ruud said. “So I just have to keep on training hard and staying focussed and doing the right things and I think good things can happen.”