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Confident Casper Ruud is in statement-making mode at the ATP Finals, and angling for a win against his idol Nadal

Casper Ruud went quiet after the US Open, but the Norwegian is back at full-throttle at the ATP Finals, hoping to finish his season with a crowning achievement.

Casper Ruud, ATP Finals 2022 Casper Ruud at the 2022 ATP Finals in Turin (AI / Reuters / Panoramic)

Casper Ruud has exceeded his wildest dreams this week at the ATP Finals, by becoming the first player to qualify for the semi-finals after two impressive performances against Felix Auger-Aliassime and Taylor Fritz.

The Norwegian has already had a season to remember, reaching Grand Slam finals at Roland-Garros and the US Open, but fourth-ranked Ruud is setting his sights on laying down a marker for the rest of the tour as the season winds down. He can finish at a career-high No 2 in the ATP rankings if he reaches the semi-finals in Turin.

Additionally, he can achieve his first career win over his longtime idol Rafael Nadal, the man he faces on Thursday in Turin.

The man that looked to be finishing his season with a whimper, as the loser of four of six matches as he headed to Turin, is instead finishing it with a resounding roar.

“I didn’t think I would be in this position when I tournament started, after two matches to be already in the semifinal,” Ruud told reporters after knocking off Fritz in a third-set tiebreak, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(6). “I’m proud to have beaten two good players on an indoor fast surface. It feels great to sit here knowing that I’ve qualified for the semi-final, which was a goal for probably everyone playing here. I’m the first one to do it, so that feels great.”

An all-court player

The US Open was proof that Ruud has come a long way on the sports’ faster surfaces. The transformation had been underway for a few years – according to Tennis Abstract Ruud was 13-26 on hard courts prior to 2021, and since then he is 51-21 – but by reaching a Grand Slam final on the hard courts at Flushing Meadows Ruud has proven to the world that he can be so much more than the dominant clay-court player we all recognise him to be.

In Turin, where the courts are the fastest on tour, the proof is in his performances.

Ruud’s vastly improved serve was a weapon against Fritz, as he hammered 14 aces and dropped just eight first-serve points in the contest.

“He was hitting his spots pretty good on the serve,” Fritz said. “He was definitely taking more risk on his second serve, which I felt like that was part of his game plan.”

Ruud says he enjoys serving in Turin – and it shows.

“It was one of my best serving matches, serve performances, in my career,” he said. “Last year I also served quite well in this tournament.”

Movement on point, and so is the backhand

Ruud’s rise to elite has been accompanied by myriad improvements. The aforementioned level of hard court play along with the serve, certainly. But don’t forget about his backhand, which has consistently improved thanks to the fact that the rest of the tour likes to target it.

Then there is the movement, which is underrated, and improving.

“I think my movements have been much better in recent weeks,” Ruud said on Tuesday. “I feel like I’m doing better now than I’ve done in some months, so that feels good. Obviously you’ll face tougher moments and periods in your career where you’re a little bit heavier in the legs and they aren’t working, but here in Turin they’ve been working well – luckily. Anytime you feel like the movement is in the good place it gives you confidence knowing that you can reach maybe a couple extra balls and that you’re fast with the legs especially here on the fast indoor courts.”

Ruud frequently uses his speed and mobility to run around his backhand, but when he can’t quite make it, he can hit his two-hander better than ever.

“I know that mainly many opponents that I play will try to force me to my backhand side, which is completely normal,” he said. “That’s how most games are played these days. So I’m used to it but I think my backhand and my footwork out to the backhand has improved a lot and I’m very happy with that.

Casper Ruud and Rafael Nadal
Spain’s Rafael Nadal and Norway’s Casper Ruud pose for a picture before the men’s singles final (AI/Reuters/Panoramic)

Ruud on Facing Rafa – “the biggest challenge of my life”

Next challenge? Trying to get a win against the man who crushed him in the Roland-Garros final this spring. In that match he may have showed too much reverence for his idol Rafael Nadal. On Thursday, when the pair meet for the second time, he hopes he can do better.

You can never count Rafa out. He has proven that many times. Every match here is important. You play for points and the ranking. I’m sure he would like to seek some sort of revenge for his two losses and finish his ATP season in a good way.

Casper Ruud on facing Nadal in Turin

But there are no guarantees, even if Nadal’s form has been less than stellar through two matches in Turin.

“You can never feel comfortable playing against Rafa, no matter what form he is in or what shape,” Ruud said. “He’s had two tough losses here; the match on Thursday is going to be quite different conditions than when we played in Roland-Garros this year, that’s for sure. It’s faster. It’s not best-of-five. It’s on hard court. Everything is different.”

Nadal in revenge mode?

Ruud expects Nadal to come out hungry to finish his season on a high note. The 24-year-old knows his mission will be two-fold: play perfect tennis and ignore the legend on the other side of the net.

“You can never count Rafa out,” Ruud said. “He has proven that many times. Every match here is important. You play for points and the ranking. I’m sure he would like to seek some sort of revenge for his two losses and finish his ATP season in a good way.

“I will try to keep it rolling for the semi-final. It would be obviously a dream feeling to move out of the group with three wins. But the next one is going to be probably the toughest match in my career, due to the fact that he’s also been my biggest idol for all my life. It’s always going to be a little bit extra special to play against him.”

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