Years ago, a young Casper Ruud sat in the stands on Court Philippe Chatrier and watched Rafael Nadal sweep to the title at Roland Garros. On Sunday afternoon, the 23-year-old Ruud had a different view as the Spaniard stormed to a 14th crown at the clay-court Grand Slam in Paris.
“I enjoyed both days, but of course it was more fun to be there myself and play,” said Ruud in his post-match press conference after falling to a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 defeat against Nadal in his maiden major final. “There are certain moments I think for everyone’s career that you’ll remember more than others, so this one will be high up on my list, biggest match I ever played.
“He’s a player I have watched on TV for the past 16, 17 years. To be there myself and face him, it’s a bit of a challenge, but a very enjoyable one… Of course I wish I could make the match closer, but at the end of the day I can hopefully one day tell my grandkids that I played Rafa on Chatrier in the final, and they will probably say, ‘Wow, did you?’ I will say Yes. I’m probably going to enjoy this moment for a long time.”
Two moments in particular stand out for Ruud from his first tour-level meeting with Nadal. “Match points are always the most memorable, and he finished the match in style with a winner down the line,” said the Norwegian. “Seeing the ball drop on the line, that’s what I can remember the most for now.
“And of course, stepping onto the court. Something that’s a bit funny when he plays, when the announcer does the intro and he says all the times he [Nadal] has won the tournament, it never stops, it seems like. That takes like half a minute just to say all the years. I think that is also something I will remember.”
Ruud admitted that taking on Nadal on a court where the Spaniard has now won 14 from 14 finals was the toughest challenge he has faced in tennis.
“I said before the match that I guess it is,” he said. “But now I think I know it is. At least what I have faced. It’s really challenging and really tough. But I already knew it in a way.”
Nadal’s prowess was clearly demonstrated in his response to Ruud breaking his serve early in the second set. The Spaniard answered by reeling off 11 straight games to charge to the title.
“I got a little bit of a cheap break of serve in the second set and was up 3-1, and of course wanted to get the match going and maybe try to win the set,” said Ruud. “But then he stepped up and he showed that when he needs to, he plays great.
“It was tough for me to really know where I should play the ball because from both sides, he [is] strong. On the forehand he plays with a little bit of spin and kind of feels like you’re playing a right-handed forehand.
“I didn’t know exactly where to play there in the end, and he made me run around the court too much. When you are playing defensive against Rafa on clay, he will eat you alive.”
The Norwegian did have some prior experience dealing with the Nadal game coming into the pair’s maiden tour-level meeting. Ruud has trained at Nadal’s academy in Mallorca since September 2018, but he admitted that previous practice sessions with the Spaniard couldn’t replicate taking him on in a major final.
“It is tough to describe,” said Ruud. “He plays the same style in practice and matches… But the circumstances were a bit different today. It was the first time I have experienced this situation, playing a Grand Slam final. I don’t think it really got to me until I stepped on court today and saw the full stadium and felt the atmosphere in the crowd.
“It was a bit tough to [make] myself comfortable in the situation in the beginning, but as the match went on, I tended to feel a little bit better, and I could calm down and breathe out a little bit more. But it was challenging because you are playing him, the most-winning Slam player ever, and on this court in the final, it’s not too easy.
“But it was worth a shot, and a good experience, for sure.”
The final against Nadal was not the first new experience for Ruud this fortnight in Paris. He had never previously been past the fourth round at a Grand Slam, and the 23-year-old believes there is plenty to take away from his showing in the French capital as he seeks greater consistency at major tournaments.
“I didn’t play my greatest tennis every single point of the tournament, but I was able to win the most important ones and realise that the best-of-five sets matches can be very long, can be sort of a marathon,” said Ruud.
“That’s something that I think I will learn from, take with me from this experience. Realising also that I have been able to keep my body well, not too many pains or injuries these two weeks and playing quite long matches. So that’s also a good sign for me.”