Early in his career, Casper Ruud embraced his clay-court success and wanted to follow in the footsteps of Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem by becoming a menace on the surface. Although the Norwegian has done that, he has had a Ruud Renaissance elsewhere: hard courts.
The 22-year-old has reversed his fortunes on the surface in 2021 in a big way. And after advancing to the semi-finals of the Nitto ATP Finals on Friday with a victory against Andrey Rublev, Ruud is two wins away from lifting the trophy at the season finale on his least-favoured surface.
“When I was watching him play against Rublev, your mindset is just that he’s really good now,” He’s not just a clay-court player who is starting to get better,” former World No. 4 Brad Gilbert told ATPTour.com. “He’s just a good player now and that result didn’t surprise me.”
Entering the season, Ruud was 16-27 in tour-level matches on hard courts. This year, he is 25-9 with victories against Rublev, Turin competitor Cameron Norrie, former World No. 1 Andy Murray, Argentine Diego Schwartzman, 2017 Nitto ATP Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov and more. Only three players own a better winning percentage on hard courts this year, and they are the three other semi-finalists in Turin: Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev.
It has been a work in progress for Ruud, who focussed on his hard-court game during the ATP Tour’s suspension due to the Covid-19 pandemic last year. He spent the time making himself comfortable being uncomfortable.
“You have to be even faster with the legs and quicker with the steps, reacting quicker than maybe when you’re standing two, three, four metres behind the baseline,” Ruud told ATPTour.com at the time. “It’s definitely been a challenge for me. In some practices I’ve felt like I’ve made more mistakes than I usually do because stepping more into the court is higher risk than staying back and playing with more topspin.
“It’s more comfortable being aggressive than being on the defence and running around all the time. You have to try to be as aggressive as you can but for some people it comes more naturally than others.”
Ruud’s team, spearheaded by his father, former World No. 39 Christian Ruud, has known Casper’s strongest surface is clay, where he has time to hit as many forehands as possible and grind down opponents. But Christian never lost faith that his son had potential on hard.
“On hard courts you have to stay inside the baseline more and take the ball on the rise. He has improved that a lot, especially on the backhand side. He has beaten some good guys on hard courts this year and previously,” Christian told ATPTour.com in August. “While his favourite surface may always be clay, I think he can do well in the future on hard courts.”
Ruud’s surge on hard came quicker than they might have expected. The Norwegian claimed his first ATP Tour title on the surface at the San Diego Open, where he lost just two games in the final against Norrie. Now, he is shining in Turin at the Pala Alpitour.
Early in the week, several players noted the court’s quick speed, which would seemingly be unfavourable for Ruud. But Gilbert, who has been following the Nitto ATP Finals closely from his home in California, believes it has been closer to a medium speed. And the Norwegian has thrived, defeating Norrie and Rublev to advance to the semi-finals against Medvedev.
Gilbert remembers watching Ruud two years ago in Houston, where he made his maiden tour-level final. And a couple of things stick out that the former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick believes has made a big difference.
“He’s improved his serve a tonne. That’s his most improved shot. Both his first and his second. He’s incredibly improved on both those shots,” Gilbert said. “His forehand is his big weapon and in the past he’d hit a lot of home runs, but have a lot of misses. He’s so much more consistent and accurate with his forehand as well. Those two shots are why he is playing so much better.
“He’s gotten consistent, he’s gotten solid and he’s learned to not overplay, not play differently from what he tries to do on clay where he’s so good.”