Ruud faces ‘idol’ Nadal in dream final

Mentor and student to meet on Chatrier in what promises to be a big hit for fans of great clay-court tennis

Casper Ruud, demi-finales, Roland-Garros 2022©Julien Crosnier / FFT
 - Stephanie Livaudais

Casper Ruud could probably list off every Roland-Garros final that 13-time champion Rafael Nadal has played in, who he has defeated in each and which players he defeated along the way.

As a kid, Ruud remembers crying in front of the television as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – his first-round opponent – defeated the Spaniard at the 2008 Australian Open.

And when he finally got the opportunity to train at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca as an up-and-coming 19-year-old, he called it a “childhood dream [turned] reality”.

Now, Ruud will get to live another dream. The first Norwegian man to reach a Grand Slam final, Ruud will face his childhood idol and mentor Nadal for the first time on Court Philippe-Chatrier for a chance to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

“He's the last player of the ‘Big Three’ and the very, very top players in the world I have never faced,” Ruud said, grinning during his on-court interview.

“I guess this is perfect timing and it was 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's playing a student from his academy this time. It's going to be a fun one, hopefully."

For fans of the tactical chess game that is clay-court tennis, the Roland-Garros men’s final will be a treat too, with the men’s tour’s two best terre battue players set to battle it out on Sunday.

On one side of the net, the record 13-time Roland-Garros champion.

No.5 seed Nadal has also set winning records at all the key tune-up events in Monte-Carlo, Madrid Barcelona and Rome, and is widely regarded as the best player to ever compete on the surface.

Stade Roland-Garros even features a statue in his image – a rare honour for a player who is neither retired nor French.

And on the other side, first-time Grand Slam finalist and No.8 seed Ruud, who has already made history for Norway by becoming the first man from his country to reach a major quarter-final and beyond.

Rafael Nadal, Inauguration de la Statue de Rafael Nadal par l’artiste Jordi Diez Fernandez, Roland-Garros 2021, Christophe Guibbaud / FFT

The 23-year-old has not been far behind Nadal in terms of clay-court mastery – in fact, he’s actually been ahead of Nadal in some categories.

Since the start of his breakthrough year in 2020, Ruud owns the distinction of winning 65 matches, reaching eight finals and winning seven titles on clay courts – all ATP tour-leading figures.

“For me, I don't know what to say, I just feel a little bit more comfortable on it, moving around and, in a way, it just kind of suits my game better,” Ruud said.

“I like the fight, the hustle, and just everything about the clay. Of course it's physically tough. You will usually play some long rallies, but I like it.”

Fight and hustle have taken Ruud over many hurdles during the fortnight in Paris.

After three consecutive years of third-round losses, Ruud finally broke through to the second week with a win over No.12 seed Hubert Hurkacz.

He then navigated past tricky opponents like 19-year-old Holger Rune in a contentious all-Scandinavian quarter-final, and a resurgent Marin Cilic in the last four.

Projected to rise to world No.6 with a run to the final, Norway’s history-maker is now focusing on making some personal history of his own.

Ruud is taking a free-swinging, nothing-to-lose mindset into the biggest match of his career, hoping to spoil the king of clay’s next coronation.

“On Sunday I will be the underdog, for sure, and Rafa will probably feel some of that pressure. So I will just try to enjoy the situation,” Ruud said.

“But I know that I will have to play even better than I did today if I want to have any chance at all, because he's the greatest clay-court player of all time, as we know, and one of the greatest all-around players, if you ask me, of all time.

“He has won 21 Slams for a reason, and 13 of them here. It's the toughest challenge there is in tennis, to play him here in the final, but at least I will have a shot at it.”

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

While Ruud’s childhood dream and the most important day of his life is playing out on Chatrier, for Nadal, it will be just another second Sunday in Paris.

It’s not the first time he’s had to defeat a bright-eyed player who has idolised him – in fact, he already did so earlier in the tournament against Corentin Moutet, a Frenchman who modeled his lefty game after Nadal’s.

And while they’ve never played each other before, it will be far from the first time these two have shared a tennis court; Ruud has become a regular visitor to Nadal's academy since his first 2017 trip.

He spends off-seasons training there – the academy’s website even features articles boasting about Ruud’s steady progress.

“Casper is one of the candidates [for] winning in every clay court event that he's playing. He's one of the clear favourites,” Nadal said. “He’s not a big surprise [in the final] at all.”

“Casper is a professional,” he added, recalling his interactions with the Norwegian in Mallorca. “He has, I think, a very good character to play tennis. He's very relaxed, humble. He's always in a positive mood about learning.

“I'm happy for him, I'm happy for his mom, dad. I know them very well. They are a super-healthy family and great people. As always, I am super happy when I see these great people having success.”

Nadal sealed a place in the final on his 36th birthday, after defeating No.3 seed Alexander Zverev via a second-set retirement when the German badly turned his ankle during their semi-final.

He won’t be any fresher going into the final though, as he and Ruud both spent roughly the same three hours on court between Nadal’s nearly two sets and Ruud’s own four-set comeback.

The win sent him back to a 14th final in Paris, with the chance to lift an Open Era record-extending 22nd Grand Slam trophy now just one win away.

For Nadal, reaching the Roland-Garros final is a different kind of dream. It’s also a full-circle moment, one year removed from the crushing semi-final exit that marked the acceleration of his chronic foot injury troubles.

He played only one match after bowing out here last year before shutting down his season, and needed surgery during the off-season.

Even after making a 20-0 start to the year, a rib injury and a worrying flare up of his foot injury nearly derailed his terre-battue preparations.

Nadal didn’t win a single clay-court tune up event in the build-up as a result.

Not for the first time, few pundits had given Nadal a chance to reach the final. And yet, once again, here the 36-year-old is, still standing firm on championship weekend.

“I played, I fighted, I did all the things possible to give myself at least a chance to be where I am,” Nadal said.

“[I’m] happy of course to be able to give myself another chance to play on second Sunday here in the final of Roland-Garros.

“That means a lot to me. And even [with] all the sacrifices and all the things that I need to go through to try to keep playing, it really makes sense when you enjoy moments like I'm enjoying in this tournament.”