Nadal v Ruud: Where the match can be won

A tactical analysis ahead of the men's singles final at Roland-Garros 2022

 - Simon Cambers

Sunday’s men’s singles final at Roland-Garros will have a familiar feel, with Rafael Nadal going for a record 14th title, and a fresh feel with Casper Ruud in a Grand Slam final for the first time in his career.

Thirteen years and 21 Grand Slam titles separate these two, but when it comes to the final on Sunday, it will, as always, come down to who handles the occasion the best; who is able to bring their A-game when it’s needed most.

For Nadal, it’s the chance to extend his lead at the top of the Grand Slam standings with title No.22; for Ruud, who has already made history for his country, it’s the chance to put Norwegian tennis on the map in the greatest way imaginable.

The pair have never played each other on tour but know each other well. Here’s our tactical breakdown of where it might be won and lost.

Nadal will target the quicker points

For someone so used to epic battles over his career, fifth-seeded Nadal is actually most dominant when the points are relatively short, rather than the sensational longer points that often catch the eye.

For a start, that’s where the majority of points are won and lost anyway, even on clay. In rallies of 0-4 in this year’s Roland-Garros, Nadal’s won 362 and lost 307, a success rate of 54 per cent.

In rallies of 5-8, he’s most successful of all, winning 194 and losing 141, a success rate of 58 per cent. When the points go past eight shots, he’s still good, winning 112 and losing 90, at 55 per cent.

As you would expect for someone who’s in the final, Ruud also comes out on top in the three categories. He’s 513/414 in 0-4 (55 per cent), 174/156 in 5-8 (52.7 per cent) and 91/79 when it goes past eight (53.5 per cent).

The differences don’t sound much but the biggest differential is in the 5-8 category. That’s where the Nadal will look to dominate.

Rafael Nadal, demi-finales, Roland-Garros 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Net points and drop shots could prove crucial

Anyone who’s ever seen Nadal play at Roland-Garros – and Ruud says he thinks he’s watched all 13 finals the Spaniard has won – will know that when he’s playing his best, he gets to the net often and with great success.

That’s often because he picks the right time to come in and because his approach shot is good but he often drops the ball short with his volleys to take advantage of his opponent’s court position.

In his six matches to date, Nadal’s won 114 of 162 points at the net (70 per cent), compared to Ruud’s 99 of 149 (66 per cent).

But watch also for the drop shot. Nadal’s been going to it more and more as the matches have become tougher in the past two weeks. After hitting just two in his opening-round win, he hit 15 against Felix Auger-Aliassime in round four, 29 in his win over Djokovic and 27 (in just two sets) against Zverev in the semis.

It’s a shot that works perfectly on clay where players are often scrambling for position. Ruud is a fabulous mover but he’s going to be coming forward more and more often to chase them down, which will be tiring.

Ruud also likes the drop shot; he hit 25 against Hubert Hurkacz in round four, but how often each man can use it will depend on their ability to dominate court position.

Casper Ruud / Roland-Garros 2022©Philippe Montigny / FFT

The head-to-head battle

This might seem a bit strange to bring up, since they have never played each other in a competitive ATP tour match, but the pair know each other well, with Ruud training at Nadal's academy in Mallorca for several years now.

The two men train together frequently and can draw on those hours they've shared on court and use them to construct their game plans in the final.

Nadal says he’s not surprised at all to see Ruud succeed and is delighted for him.

“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 their dreams,” he said.

Ruud learns a lot of his practice sessions with Nadal and admits the Spaniard comes out on top in most of them.

“There's been some close sets, 7-6, 7-5, but it always goes his favour,” Ruud said.

“But it's because we are playing in the academy and I want to be nice to him and give him the (win). I will try to figure something else out than in the practices, how to beat him," he added with a laugh.

Tennis players never forget, even what happens in practice.