© Corinne Dubreuil/ATP Tour

Casper Ruud will pursue his first ATP Masters 1000 title at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters.

Ruud's Clay Preview: No 'Room To Breathe' Against Nadal, 'You Can't Rest' vs. Djokovic

Norwegian analyses the best clay performers on the ATP Tour

Casper Ruud is flying higher than ever entering the European clay-court season. At a career-high No. 7 in the ATP Rankings, the Norwegian is fresh off reaching his first ATP Masters 1000 final in Miami.

Ruud will happily take a lot of confidence from that run moving onto his favourite surface. This week, he is the fourth seed at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters.

“It gives me confidence. It shows me I’m able to reach the final of ATP Masters 1000 events,” Ruud told ATPTour.com. “Since we started after the Covid break, I was able to reach three semis of Masters 1000s on clay, and was never was able to reach a final. So to be able to reach a final for the first time [at this level] was a good feeling.

“It’s always fun to play in a final, the most fun obviously is to win them. But to just be in the final and get that experience was something very exciting and motivating for the future, of course.”

Ruud explained why he feels some of the best clay-court players in the world are as good as they are on the surface.

Rafael Nadal
I have practised with him quite a bit and I think he never gives you room to breathe when you play against him on clay. All the shots he produces are very heavy to face because he puts a lot of topspin and they bounce very high. Any time you need to play a shot above shoulder height from the baseline or when you play groundstrokes, it’s tough. It’s tough to get good enough depth back when he plays these heavy shots, so he gets a chance many times to move forward and go for an aggressive shot.

He sets up the point very well and many times the same way. He likes to dominate points with his forehand and I think the majority of his clay-court career, he has been very successful playing his forehand heavy crosscourt to his opponent’s backhand, usually when he plays right-handed players. Most players struggle with his shots and it’s very normal because they’re very heavy. I think this is what makes him so successful.

He plays every point very, very strictly and with order, like it’s his last point. I have heard him say that many times before and that’s the reason he never gives you room to breathe. You don’t get too many free points from him in a match or when you play points [in practice]. With the clay, sometimes it’s more physically demanding because you play longer rallies and longer matches, and he’s there ready for it.

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Novak Djokovic
He plays a little bit differently from Rafa. He plays a little bit further in to the court and the thing with Novak is that his backhand is so pure and so good, that even though many clay-court players like Rafa like to push the backhand of their opponent because it’s tough with the high bounce, with the heaviness, Novak stands against it better than anybody else because he has such good control with his backhand.

It makes it tough to find any holes in his game and his forehand is no weakness either, so he can produce winners and good defensive shots from both sides all the time. He has the package where you can’t really rest in any corner of the court when you play against him because either he plays with his backhand and he will push you with it and also with his forehand he can produce great angles and different shots.

Obviously he’s one of the best movers on Tour. He can get to certain balls and play defence like no other player, so I think that’s what makes him as tough as he is both on hard court and clay. But on clay, he is able to step into the court and take those heavy shots that you try to play at him a little bit more on the rise and play it with good depth back to you.

Dominic Thiem
Dominic is more similar to Rafa. He plays with great intensity and heavy shots, with both the forehand and the backhand, but especially the forehand. [I think] he puts a little more spin [on the forehand].

The backhand is also dangerous because he can do many things with it. He can slice it very well, he can play open stance with the one-handed backhand, which is not easy, and then he can also step in and rip it down the line very flat and aggressively. It’s tough to find spots where you can really rest if you have a tough rally because he has all the shots.

His kick serve is very, very good, which helps a lot on clay. He opens the court very well to set up big forehands and big groundstrokes. He’s quick, he moves around well, he makes you play tough, physical rallies from the baseline. He’s obviously one of the tougher players to play on clay and he has proved it. He has played the final of the French Open two times and won big tournaments on the surface.

Carlos Alcaraz
He can play on all surfaces because he plays aggressive, but he also plays with a decent amount of topspin — the forehand even more than the backhand. What impressed me last year when we played on clay was how aggressive he was able to stay and how far into the court he was able to hit most of his shots.

At the same time, like the others I’ve mentioned, he moves incredibly well. He can also play great defensive shots and counter-attack very well. He also has a good kick serve, which opens the court well.

Alexander Zverev
He’s one of the more successful clay-court players of the younger generation. He has won Madrid two times and he has won Rome as well. That’s a pretty good stat to have on clay and I think he doesn’t necessarily play with too much spin, but he returns very, very well. He stands further back most of the time and he doesn’t play heavy in terms of a lot of topspin, but he plays heavy shots because he produces good power, speed and depth pretty much all the time.

You don’t find any holes on the backhand side and of course he also serves well, so he gets some free points with his serve, which is nice on the surface, because usually you need to play more rallies if you don’t have a great serve. He serves well, he returns well and he plays with good depth pretty much all the time, so it’s tough to attack him. That’s where Sascha is dangerous on the surface.

* * *
Those are not all of the players Ruud feels are tough opponents on clay. In fact, one player who troubles the Norwegian might surprise you.

“I have a pretty bad record against Albert Ramos-Vinolas. Maybe he’s not a guy who is talked about too much,” Ruud said. “I also find Diego Schwartzman a tough player on clay. He moves very well, he puts a lot of balls back. His serve is quite tricky in a way and I think he spends a lot of hours on clay every year and likes to play on the surface. He’s beaten Rafa before on clay. Not too many players around the world have done that, but there are also other players who are very good on the surface.

Stefanos Tsitsipas was a finalist last year at Roland Garros and I’ve played Matteo Berrettini a couple of times on clay, we’ve had some tough battles. Andrey Rublev also, even though you maybe don’t think of him as a good clay-court player, he plays very well and he made the final last year in Monte-Carlo and beat Rafa as well. There are a lot of guys who can actually play very well on the surface.”

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