Interview: Ruud bouncing back ahead of RG

2022 finalist shakes off early-season slump with strong Rome showing

Casper Ruud / Rome 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

If there’s one thing Casper Ruud has learned from his past few months on tour, it’s that change is the one constant in the world of tennis and it can happen very quickly, for better or worse.

On the back of a sensational 2022 campaign that saw him reach the final at Roland-Garros, the US Open, and the season-ending ATP Finals in Turin, and rise to a career-high No.2 in the world, Ruud admittedly struggled at the start of 2023, going 5-6 in his first six events of the year.

A 10th career title, captured in Estoril last month, provided a welcome boost and the 24-year-old Norwegian looks to have recaptured his spark on the clay courts of Rome this fortnight, where he has reached a third consecutive semi-final at the Masters 1000 event.

Ruud had an inkling it was going to be difficult to immediately back up his standout 2022 but predicting trouble ahead doesn’t make it any less frustrating to deal with when it happens.

“It's not fun at all,” Ruud told this week of his early-season slump.

“As tennis players we live off trying to win matches, that’s sort of everything we have. That’s what we base our rankings on, and our income, you have to win to get points and prize money.

“It’s always like this constant battle to try to win as many matches as possible; you sort of start thinking when you lose more than you would like, what am I doing wrong? How come all these other players are improving and I’m stuck where I am? And can’t really get out of these negative thoughts.

“But I think that things can change, for the better or for the worse very quickly. One match can be the solution to everything, it can change a whole year, or maybe one point even. It’s crazy with tennis because the margins are so small and there’s no limit to how well you can do or how bad or how many matches you can lose in a row.”

Casper Ruud / Rome 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Rome resurgence

This time last year, Ruud’s clay season came to life as he reached the semi-finals in Rome, then won the title in Geneva, before making history on Paris’ terre battue as the first Norwegian man to reach a Grand Slam final.

When things got tricky for him this season, Ruud didn’t need to look far for confirmation that things could swing back in his favour sooner or later.

“I think a great example is Daniil Medvedev, who in my world and in my head he’s definitely a top-five player in the world and a couple of months ago he was outside the top 10 because he hasn’t felt as well as he maybe would like and he changed things around and now he’s back to where he belongs and has been on a really good streak in the last couple of months,” Ruud explained.

“So I think things can change, both for the better and the worse, very quickly, and you just have to live in the moment and enjoy it and try to play as much and as good as you can when you’re in the zone and I’m trying to get back to that zone.

“A few wins here now in Rome could hopefully be a part of some success coming. I have a lot of important weeks coming up for me and if I want to keep my ranking and my position, I need to win some more matches and try to do well the next couple of weeks.”

‘I’m a better player this May than last May’

Ruud’s journey in Rome so far included a third-set tiebreak win over Alexander Bublik in the third round, followed by a pair of revenge victories over Laslo Djere and Francisco Cerundolo. His reward is a last-four showdown on Saturday with fellow Scandinavian Holger Rune, who lost to Ruud in a hotly-contested quarter-final at Roland-Garros last year.

Still coy about making any declarations regarding his return to form, Ruud doesn’t feel he has made any drastic changes to his game that may have resulted in his resurgence this fortnight at the Foro Italico.

“It's funny because I don’t think I’ve done anything different or worse in the last months where it hasn’t gone that well compared to when I did well last year for example. I think, honestly, that I’m a better player this May than last May, or last September, October or whatever you want to call it,” he assures.

“I feel like I’m improving as a player but it’s just the margins are so small at this level these days.

“It’s always like a battle but the battle is mostly towards yourself and trying to stay positive and knowing that the depth of tennis these days is really big.

“There’s not just 10 or 20 guys that can play well, it’s 80 or 100 guys that can really challenge each other and win against each other.

“We saw it the other day with (Carlos) Alcaraz and the Hungarian new kid (Fabian Marozsan) who you’re going to hear more about in the future. You’ve seen it many times recently.

“(Jan-Lennard) Struff coming into Madrid as a lucky loser and making the final; it’s fun to see but it can be frustrating because you feel like you’re doing the right things but you don’t get the wins that you need. I’m just trying to stay as positive as I can and enjoy the journey and realise that things will go up and down no matter how hard you try to always do well.”

Precious Paris memories

Ruud reflects fondly on his run at Roland-Garros last year and describes it as a “great time in my career and in my life”.

He remembers the emotions he felt on Court Philippe-Chatrier when he defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first round, sending the Frenchman into retirement.

“He’s one of the guys I watched a lot on TV when I grew up so I felt right after the match tears were coming. He was never my ultimate favourite player to watch but the atmosphere was incredible and you could see that his tears were coming and the fans were really enjoying it, so that was a very emotional start,” Ruud recalled.

Casper Ruud & Jo-Wilfried Tsonga / Premier tour Roland-Garros 2022©Philippe Montigny / FFT

“The third round I was two sets to one and I think break point down in the fourth set playing against (Lorenzo) Sonego, who played great, and I was able to turn that match around and win in five.

“Obviously the quarter-final against fellow Scandinavian Holger was special. The semi-final as well, winning that semi-final (against Marin Cilic), I still remember I finished with an ace and I just looked up to my box and I was so happy and they were so happy and I knew I was going to play a Grand Slam final for the first time so it was sort of hard to know how to react other than to just have a big smile on your face.”

Holger Rune & Casper Ruud / Roland-Garros 2022©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

Facing an idol

Up against Rafael Nadal in the final, Ruud was handed a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 defeat as the Spaniard lifted a record-extending 14th Roland-Garros champion’s trophy. Ruud grew up idolising Nadal and has spent a lot of time training at his academy in Mallorca over the years.

It was not easy keeping the belief against someone who has lost just three times in 115 matches contested on Parisian clay but Ruud felt like he did everything he could against the tournament’s perennial champion.

“Obviously numbers don’t lie so you go into a final against a guy who is 13-0 in those situations on that court. There was hope and there was belief because I knew he had been struggling with his foot a bit and you never know what can happen overnight or if he’s feeling worse today. Maybe in a way it’s not so nice to say but I was hoping that it was bothering him a little bit more than it was,” confessed Ruud.

Casper Ruud, Rafael Nadal, finale Roland-Garros 2022©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

“Rafa fit on clay, best-of-five sets, very few people have been able to beat him there. So to see like you’re able to beat him straight up, it’s tough, it’s hard to believe because I’ve watched him all my life almost toying with his opponents sometimes at Roland-Garros. So for me to believe I’m just going to go out there and beat him was tough, but there was belief, there was hope, but it was over quite quickly.

But it was fun, I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the match. Even though it was 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 I think many of the games were closer and I had maybe some small chances in the second set but I wasn’t able to take them. I think the scoreline maybe lied a little bit but in the end he deserved to win.

“I was just happy I was going home after a long clay season, which I finished in an unbelievable way for me making the final at Roland-Garros. It was a great time for me in my career and in my life.”

Rafael Nadal, Casper Ruud, trophées, finale, Roland-Garros 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

‘Rafa is missed’

Ruud has been in touch with Nadal, who has been sidelined with a psoas injury since the Australian Open. The Spanish legend has announced that he will be missing Roland-Garros for the first time since he won the title on his tournament debut in 2005, and will be taking a break from the sport with an eye on returning for a farewell season in 2024.

“I don’t like to bother him too much by sending him all these texts, but every now and then I do, just saying that he’s missed, especially during this clay season and at the clay tournaments where he has had so much success,” Ruud revealed.

When he made the final in Paris 11 months ago, Ruud was worried he’d be a “one-hit wonder” and that his Roland-Garros run could ultimately be seen as a fluke. Those doubts were quickly quashed when he reached the US Open final three months later.

Casper Ruud / Quarts de finale US Open 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

“That gave me a lot of relief of tension in a way and I think also making the final of the Nitto ATP Finals made me realise that I can do big results on surfaces that I’m not even too comfortable with,” he added.

“Making three of the five biggest finals that we have in a year is not something that I expect to do every year but it was really fun while I did it last year. It gave me more belief in myself that maybe one day I can lift one of these trophies and it’s a good indication that I have the stamina and the mentality to reach far and deep in the biggest tournaments.”

He certainly does!

Carlos Alcaraz & Casper Ruud / US Open 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT