Ruud v Zverev: Where the match can be won

Tactical breakdown of Friday’'s semi-final between last year’s runner-up and the No.22 seed

Ruud - Zverev
 - Chris Oddo

Friday’s last-four clash between 2022 runner-up Casper Ruud and three-time semi-finalist Alexander Zverev promises to be a baseline battle that will be decided by the thinnest of margins. 

The pair have met three times at tour-level, with Zverev winning twice and Ruud taking the third, but never on clay. 

How will the match-up play out in this high-stakes battle on the terre battue at Roland-Garros, and which player is primed to claim the final spot in the lower half of the men’s singles draw? 

Here’s a tactical breakdown of their upcoming tilt. 

Zverev’s mission: Target the Ruud backhand 

Ruud’s aggression and power comes from his phenomenal forehand wing, but when it comes to the backhand the Norwegian can be exploited.

Due to a lack of power off that wing, the 24-year-old uses his backhand as a neutral shot, and often it can be targeted by opponents who are looking for forced errors or even for a momentary respite from the percussive blasts that come from Ruud's forehand.

Ruud's backhand is certainly not a stroke to fear. The No.4 seed has managed just 16 backhand winners in the tournament, lowest (by far) of all remaining players, and he has coughed up 72 forced errors and 46 unforced errors off that side. 

If Zverev is doing the math, his job will be simple: Get into backhand cross-court rallies and take the forehand inside out. 

Casper Ruud, quarter-final, Roland-Garros 2023 © Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Attack the second serve

With Zverev winning just 49 per cent of second-serve points through his first five matches (he also leads all semi-finalists with 36 double faults), the onus will be on Ruud to find ways to exploit the German’s second-serve deficiency.

Ruud is winning 56 per cent of second-serve return points, and should be able to position himself favourably in rallies if he can find depth and accuracy on his second-serve returns. 

Zverev will look to do the same, as he has done all tournament – the German leads all semi-finalists by winning 65 per cent of his second-serve return points. 

Both Zverev and Ruud have won 86 per cent of their service games thus far at Roland-Garros. 

Alexander Zverev, quarts de finale, Roland-Garros 2023©Pauline Ballet / FFT

Zverev’s forehand the weaker wing 

Zverev is a minus-33 (43 winners and 75 unforced errors) off his forehand wing through five rounds. Undoubtedly Ruud will want to use his venomous forehand to go after that corner of the German’s game. Frances Tiafoe, who lost to Zverev in four tight sets in the third round, has laid the blueprint for such an attack. The American forced 30 forehand errors and drew another 21 unforced errors off Zverev's forehand side. 

Ruud will look to step around his backhand and get into forehand cross-court rallies as often as he can. If Zverev shades that side, the Norwegian can then start to hit to the open court, down the line, to keep him honest. 

Anytime spent in the forehand corner should be a good time for Ruud - the Norwegian leads all semi-finalists with 92 forehand winners.

For both Ruud and Zverev, Friday’s match-up is about playing to strength. For the Norwegian that’s the forehand; for the German that’s the backhand. How they find ways to exploit one another's weakness, and the tactical chess match that takes place between the lines, should make for a fascinating, compelling contest between two players who are still entertaining title hopes in Paris.

Casper Ruud, third round, Roland-Garros 2023© Loïc Wacziak/FFT