Casper Ruud is preparing for “the greatest challenge there is in this sport” after setting up a Roland Garros final against idol Rafael Nadal.
Ruud progressed to his first Grand Slam final with a four-set win over the resurgent Marin Cilic on Friday, and will now face a legend appearing in his 30th.
Nadal reached the title match earlier on Friday after opponent Alexander Zverev severely injured his ankle.
Nadal and Zverev had battled for more than three hours in slow, humid conditions beneath the Court Philippe Chatrier roof, and they had not even completed two sets.
Zverev rolled heavily over his ankle when running for a wide forehand and departed the court in a wheelchair, before returning on crutches to officially end the match.
Nadal trailed 4-2 in the first set, 6-2 in the first-set tiebreak, and 5-3 in the second set, yet ultimately prevailed 7-6(8) 6-6 ret.
“(Zverev) started the match playing amazing, honestly. Have been a miracle that first set. But I was there fighting and trying to find solutions all the time,” said Nadal, who is one victory from capturing the first two major titles of 2022.
“When Sascha is playing well in any conditions, he's an amazing player. Under these conditions, even was more difficult for me to put him away from the court, no?
“Only thing that I can say is I hope he's not too bad… if you are human, you should feel very sorry for a colleague.”
Nadal now turns his attention to another colleague, one he has close ties with since Ruud has spent time training and developing at Nadal’s academy in Mallorca.
He said he was unsurprised to see the young Norwegian flourishing in Paris; Ruud is indeed one of the game’s premier clay-courters, with six titles and a 49-10 win-loss record on the surface in the past two seasons.
“I have a huge respect for him. First of all in terms of a friend, he has a great character. He's a great guy, and he has a great family,” Nadal said.
“Casper is a professional. He has I think a very good character to play tennis. He's very relaxed, humble. He's always in a positive mood about learning.
“I think in the academy we were able to help him a little bit during this period of time… I like to see the good persons achieving his dreams.”
Nadal has dreams of his own, primarily a jaw-dropping 14th title at his favourite event, and the chance to reach the halfway point in the quest for the sport’s holy grail – a calendar-year Grand Slam.
Yet above all, he maintains an inspirational passion for the sport.
Despite his age – he turned 36 the same day he played Zverev – and the chronic foot problems which have plagued his 2021 and 2022 seasons, he finds enduring joy in the process of being a professional player.
“If you like what you are doing, you keep going,” said Nadal, who is undefeated in 13 Roland Garros finals.
RAFAEL NADAL IN ROLAND GARROS FINALS
|2005||Won||M. Puerta||6-7(6) 6-3 6-1 7-5|
|2006||Won||R. Federer||1-6 6-1 6-4 7-6(4)|
|2007||Won||R. Federer||6-3 4-6 6-3 6-4|
|2008||Won||R. Federer||6-1 6-3 6-0|
|2010||Won||R. Soderling||6-4 6-2 6-4|
|2011||Won||R. Federer||7-5 7-6(3) 5-7 6-1|
|2012||Won||N. Djokovic||6-4 6-3 2-6 7-5|
|2013||Won||D. Ferrer||6-3 6-2 6-3|
|2014||Won||N. Djokovic||3-6 7-5 6-2 6-4|
|2017||Won||S. Wawrinka||6-2 6-3 6-1|
|2018||Won||D. Thiem||6-4 6-3 6-2|
|2019||Won||D. Thiem||6-3 5-7 6-1 6-1|
|2020||Won||N. Djokovic||6-0 6-2 7-5|
“For example, if you like to go and play golf, you keep going to play golf. If I like to play tennis and if I can and I can handle to keep playing, I keep playing because I like what I do. So that's it.
“Of course I enjoy. And if I am healthy enough to play, I like the competition, honestly, no? I like to play in the best stadiums of the world and feel myself at my age still competitive.
“Means a lot to me, no? That makes me feel in some way proud and happy about all the work that we did.”
Ruud is perfectly aware of the challenge that confronts him.
He faces a player whom he idolises, after watching each and every one of Nadal’s 13 French finals preceding this one.
Despite this being their first official meeting on tour, Ruud admitted he almost always loses the practice sets they play.
“To play Rafa in a Roland Garros final is probably the greatest challenge there is in this sport,” Ruud said.
“We all know what a great champion he is and how well he plays in the biggest moments and the biggest matches.
“I'm just going to try to enjoy it. I will be the underdog, and I will try to, tonight and tomorrow night, dream about great winners and unbelievable rallies, because that's what it's going to take if I want to have any chance, and I will need to play my best tennis ever.
“But I still have to believe that I can do it, and I think part of my game today was working very well. In the end, I was playing great in the third and fourth set.”
A dream realised
Ruud’s victory over Cilic – improving his record against the Croat to 3-0 – means he has now won 10 consecutive matches; he captured the ATP Geneva title in the week prior to Roland Garros.
Projected to rise to a career-best world No.6, the 23-year-old had simply hoped to reach the quarterfinal stage in Paris after failing to get beyond the fourth round at any of his previous 13 Grand Slam main draw appearances.
He has met, and surpassed, that goal impressively; it is a result that represents the continuation of a steady rise in the sport, as well as in his own self-belief, which his says spiked after reaching the Rome Masters semifinals in 2020.
Now, he stands just one win away from joining the greats of the game with a major singles title.
“To be able to play a Grand Slam final is something I have looked up to always on TV, and I will of course give it my all. It feels very exciting,” Ruud said.
“This is a special occasion for both of us. He's playing for his 22nd (Slam). I'm playing for my first.
It's gonna be amazing to be there myself when you have seen … all the guys who have played him in (Roland Garros) finals. So to be a part of that group myself is something I can always brag about after my career.
“I will of course give it a shot at the title, and would be nicer to be able to brag about the title as well after my career.”