Ruud, Zverev peaking at the right time

The pair put difficult times behind them as they square off in intriguing semi-final on Friday

Alexander Zverev, Roland-Garros 2023, quarter-final© Pauline Ballet/FFT
 - Alex Sharp

Casper Ruud and Alexander Zverev both left Paris with lingering heartache last June, but for very different reasons.

World No.4 Ruud broke new ground, launching into his maiden Grand Slam final, before a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 demolition by Rafael Nadal.

A couple of days earlier, Zverev was down 7-6(8), 6-6 in a pulsating semi-final with eventual champion Nadal, when disaster struck. The German suffered a three-ligament tear in his right ankle, leaving Court Philippe-Chatrier on crutches.

For Zverev, Roland-Garros 2023 has been his tale of redemption, which gained some serious momentum with a four-set triumph over Tomas Martin Etcheverry on Wednesday.

The 26-year-old is no stranger to the latter stages of majors, but his sixth Grand Slam semi-final, against Ruud on Friday, has a particularly sweet taste to it.

"Roland-Garros was definitely a tournament that I marked on my calendar this year," said Zverev, who returned to competition in January after a six-month hiatus.

"I'm extremely happy with how things are going, but the tournament is not over yet. There are still potentially two very, very difficult matches ahead, and I'm looking forward to that."

Six months of rehab out the way, the former world No.2 has since been searching for his elite level, to be able to play on instincts again. At times he's had to "remind myself of who you were", in terms of posting big results and lifting prestigious trophies.

His patience has been tested to the limit.

"It took longer than expected. Still, beginning of the season, Australia I was playing on one leg still. Then I think until basically Indian Wells, Miami, I was still in pain at times," said Zverev, who is a three-time Masters 1000 champion on clay.

"I was not able to practise normally. I think it was just getting through the process. After that it also takes time to feel the confidence again in your leg to be sliding around the court, being able to move the way you were.

"I'm talking about the injury more than I'm thinking about it. It's in the past now."

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

The 2020 US Open finalist has clicked back into his major mindset.

"Grand Slams are tennis history. That's what you play for. I think the two most important things in tennis are Grand Slams and the Olympic Games," said Zverev, who won singles gold at Tokyo 2020.

"When you are in a semi-final or final of either of those, I think that's very different than being in a final of another tournament."

Ruud has also been re-channelling his major mindset. Alongside his Roland-Garros success, the Norwegian was finalist at the US Open last September. His 2023 campaign did not get off to a strong start, however, as the 24-year-old attempted to back up his 2022 heroics.

A title on clay in Estoril, and a semi-final showing in Rome were positive signs for Ruud, who is now peaking at the right time, with a dominant 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 quarter-final victory over Holger Rune in Wednesday's night session further boosting his confidence.

"It's for sure maybe the biggest win of the year for me considering how the year has been, so very happy with it," said Ruud.

Injuries, patchy form and expectations are all out the window. On Friday, Zverev will walk onto court with a 2-1 head-to-head edge over his opponent. On the other hand, Ruud prevailed in their last encounter, a three-set win in the Miami Open quarter-finals last March.

"It's going to be hopefully a fun one. I think it's great to see Sascha back. I think both for him and me, this is our biggest result this year, reaching the semi-final," said Ruud.

"I think we will try to play with shoulders down and just try to enjoy it.

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

"It's been a tough year for Sascha, and he has fought his way back. The beginning of this year for me has not been great, so it's great to get a good result here for me. 

"We would both love, of course, to be in the final on Sunday, so we're going to give it all and we're going to be ready to hopefully put on a good match." 

Meanwhile, Zverev knows there will be no room for complacency.

"Ruud has been there before. He was in the final here last year, so he knows exactly what it means and what it takes," said the No.22 seed.