On Friday evening at the French Open, Casper Ruud defeated Marin Cilic to make his first Grand Slam final.
The Norwegian eclipsed his previous-best run at a Major of reaching the fourth-round of the 2021 Australian Open, overcoming his own hurdles in winning six best-of-five matches.
However, to say the biggest challenge of them all remains is an understatement. None of those opponents compare to playing Rafael Nadal on the final Sunday of Roland Garros. Though he played some inspired tennis to get to this stage, Ruud has never met Nadal on a tennis court before. Will his brand of tennis leave a dent in the seemingly invulnerable husk of Nadal on Chatrier?
French Open Final: Rafael Nadal vs Casper Ruud
Ruud’s Strengths and Weaknesses
First, let’s take a look at the relevant aspects of Ruud’s game to compare his strengths and weaknesses to Nadal’s.
- The forehand: The most obvious strength of Ruud’s, an incredibly heavy shot that rivals Nadal himself in terms of RPMs. He is incredibly adept at constructing points on this wing, and it’s unlikely to break down under pressure. He can also keep himself alive with brilliant control in defense if his back is against the wall. If he needs a little extra, however, Ruud does have trouble flattening it out (see Djokovic’s offensive capabilities in his quarterfinal match against Nadal).
- The backhand: Not a weakness by any means, but his ability to be offensive on this wing doesn’t come as second-nature. It’s a solid shot for sure, but it’s still an area of vulnerability. Ruud’s previous four opponents were able to exploit it at times during their matches but couldn’t sustain the consistent width required from rally to rally to trouble it.
- The first serve: A somewhat underrated shot of Ruud’s that’s improved a lot as he’s looked to find his best tennis on a hard-court over the last year or so. He’s worked hard on his serve out wide in the deuce court in particular.
- The second serve: Like his forehand, the second serve has plenty of work on it. It hasn’t been an attackable shot for any of his opponents. In fact, Ruud tops the tournament leaderboard for second-serve points won at 64% (even positioned ahead of Nadal!).
The Match-Up With Nadal
How do these strengths and weaknesses bounce off the King of Clay’s?
Unfortunately, things don’t look good. Many of Nadal’s strengths neutralize Ruud’s strengths and exploit his weaknesses.
Even on his best serving day, Ruud isn’t a big enough server to stop Nadal returning the ball from ten meters behind the baseline if necessary, as he did against Alexander Zverev. We may even see Nadal step in a little on the advantage side of the court. It is imperative Ruud hits his wide serve perfectly in the deuce court to keep Nadal pinned to the back when returning and to give himself the best possible chance of hitting a forehand as his next shot.
Notice the word imperative. This is because Ruud’s chances look slim as the rallies extend.
- Ruud’s usual pattern of play, attacking his opponent’s backhand with his own inside-out forehand, will have to be rethought with Nadal’s forehand lying in wait. Felix Auger-Aliassime put on a clinic of how to hit your forehand inside-in in the fourth-round, but I’m not convinced Ruud has the huge serve required to consistently give himself enough time to hit this shot. Even if does manage to run around the ball, his inside-in forehand isn’t quite as quality as Auger-Aliassime’s, meaning he may struggle to attack Nadal’s ferocious backhand.
- Nadal’s ability to pull Ruud out wide to his backhand with short angled forehands cross-court could be lethal. Ruud isn’t a natural counterpuncher and will have trouble finding his way out of backhand jail when Nadal plays this shot–the easiest shot is back into Nadal’s forehand, who will either look to deepen the advantage cross-court or will pull the trigger down the line.
Who does this favor?
Basically, it will be tough for Ruud while it’ll be far easier for Nadal to be offensive as the rallies extend. While Ruud’s second serve will keep him alive for longer than most off the first ball, Nadal should be able to neutralize this advantage too, unfortunately leading to more extended rallies.
Casper Ruud has got a chance if he looks to play clinical first-strike tennis. It’s not his go-to strategy, however, and playing outside of your comfort zone is normally a recipe for disaster.
As I say, Ruud has a chance. But the King of Clay isn’t 13-0 in French Open finals for nothing.
Main Photo from Getty.