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Can Ruud stop Djokovic’s march to tennis immortality in Roland Garros final?

  • Matt Trollope

If it was already a tough-enough feat for Casper Ruud to reach three finals at the past five majors, his opponents in those finals present an altogether more challenging scenario.

In his first, at Roland Garros last year, Ruud faced an all-time great in Rafael Nadal, and was overwhelmed on a court the Spaniard has come to own.

A few months later, in the US Open final, it was Carlos Alcaraz across the net. The ascendant teenager proved his greatness by beating Ruud to capture his first Grand Slam title – at the same time rising to world No.1.

Back in Paris this year, Ruud has again advanced to the final – where Novak Djokovic awaits.

Not only has Djokovic dominated the match-up – he is 4-0 against Ruud, without surrendering a set – but the Serb is also playing for myriad records which would, in the eyes of many, cement his status as the greatest male player of all time. 

“It's going to be tough, for sure,” said an understated Ruud, after beating Alexander Zverev 6-3 6-4 6-0 in Friday’s semifinals.

“He's playing for his 23rd (Grand Slam title). I'm playing for my first. So I'm going to … just try to enjoy the moment.

“Let's see if I have learned something from the two previous ones that I played last year.

In his most recent Grand Slam final at the 2022 US Open, Casper Ruud (R) fell in four sets to Carlos Alcaraz (R). [Getty Images]

“It just feels great to be back. I didn't think or necessarily believe in the beginning of the tournament that I was going to be in the final.

“(It) is going to be the toughest challenge of the year for me, for sure, to play Novak. I'm going to have to try to come up with a better game plan and just know I'm going to have to play my A game, my best level that I've ever played if I want to have a chance against him.”

Going on court after the first semifinal between Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, Ruud witnessed just how overwhelming it is to face the Serb deep in a major tournament. 

ALCARAZ: "I have never felt tension that I did in that match"

So stressed and tense was Alacraz that, after two extraordinary sets of high-intensity tennis, his entire body cramped, ending his challenge. 

Ruud is yet to experience facing Djokovic in this environment; this is their first meeting at a Grand Slam event. 

It’s a stage on which Djokovic thrives, his performance boosted by the motivation he draws from creating history.

By beating Alcaraz, Djokovic is the only man in the Open Era to achieve a winning rate of at least 85 per cent at all four majors.

The result saw him reach his 34th major final, tying him in first place on the all-time list with Chris Evert.

He enters this Roland Garros final on a 20-match Grand Slam winning streak, the reigning champion at both Wimbledon and the Australian Open. His last loss at a major came on 31 May 2022, more than a year ago.

DJOKOVIC SETS SIGHTS HIGHER: "I want to make more history"

Victory over Ruud would give Djokovic a men’s record 23rd major singles title. It would put him within striking distance of the all-time record – both men’s and women’s singles, across amateur and professional eras – of 24, held by Margaret Court.

He would also become the first man in history to win each of the four majors at least three times, as well as the oldest Roland Garros men’s champion in the Open era.

Plus, he would keep alive his shot at the calendar Grand Slam. 

An especially captivating element of Djokovic’s story is his willingness to discuss the heights and milestones he can attain.

“Calendar slam is really far. But maybe it won't be that far if I win on Sunday. But let's see,” he said, after overcoming Alcaraz 6-3 5-7 6-1 6-1. 

“I put myself again in a position to fight for another Grand Slam trophy. I've been very fortunate that most of the matches in tournaments I've played in the last few years, there is history on the line.

“I like the feeling. It's a privilege. It's (an) incredible privilege to be able to make history of the sport that I truly love, and it has given me so much.

“The motivation is very high, as you can imagine. There is one more to go.

“I'm so close. I know it. I know the feeling. I've had this feeling quite a few times in my career. So I know how I need to handle myself, my emotions, my day tomorrow, and after tomorrow, and to approach the finals in the best possible way.

“Pressure is always on my shoulders, so it's not going to be different… I think that having pressure is a privilege.”

It’s an approach contrasting with that of Ruud, who said he would “try to play without too much pressure” in Sunday’s final. 

But in his way, the young Norwegian is beginning to similarly embrace it.

He struggled on clay in the lead-up to Roland Garros this year, and admitted he was feeling the burden of defending his run to last year’s final.

Nevertheless, he has managed to play through those nerves, getting better the deeper he has progressed in Paris. 

He outplayed Holger Rune in the quarterfinals to avenge his recent loss to the Dane in Rome, then allowed Zverev just seven games in a semifinal masterclass.

RUNE v RUUD: "I hope we can make less drama this year"

“I think this and the quarterfinal match was one of the best matches that I played this year,” Ruud observed. 

“So that's (a) good confidence boost going into the final… (I’m) probably playing the best tennis of the year so far. It's been a tough one, but this sort of changes a little bit everything and how the year has been going. 

“I'm gonna see if I can try to use last year's defeat in the final as … extra motivation to try to play well on Sunday.”