Casper Ruud was the youngest player to directly qualify for the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals. It was a fitting way to cap a breakthrough year.
That Casper Ruud was a player to watch out for in the future is well-known for quite some time. However, not even his biggest fans could have predicted the kind of rise he would have had in 2021.
He not only won five ATP titles – taking his career tally to six – he also made it to the semi-finals of two ATP Masters events. Those are, in essence, the toughest tournaments to play in after the Grand Slams.
He capped off the year by making his debut in the Nitto ATP Finals; there, he qualified out of the group to make it to the semi-finals where he lost to eventual runner-up Daniil Medvedev.
But his strong showing ensured he retained his number 8 position in the ATP rankings. It also ensured that, come the 2022 season, there will be even more eyes on the boy from Norway.
So what is the story behind Rudd’s rise to tennis stardom? And why was 2021 such a breakout year for the second-generation tennis star?
That is exactly what we will explore here.
Casper Ruud always knew that making it as a tennis player would be something of a struggle. This is true for anyone who takes up this, or indeed, any other sport.
But it is especially so in Norway. The country’s previous highest-ranked men’s player reached an all-time high of 39th, all the way back in 1995.
Fun fact: the player who accomplished that feat is Christian Ruud who, as you guessed, is Casper’s father. And also the man who’s coached him since an early age.
Such is the lack of exposure to the sport in Norway that the country competes in the lower levels of the Davis Cup.
This means that Ruud, one of the best players in the world right now, sometimes finds himself facing non-professional, unranked players in one of tennis’ biggest cup competitions.
A lot of this comes down to how Norway is as a country. The predominantly cold weather means that the nation is more renowned for winter sports. As such, most funding goes to winter sports.
It is a problem Ruud is keenly aware of. “It’s always easier to blame the federation for these things but it’s tough for the federation,” Ruud told The Guardian in an interview.
“Because they don’t receive too much money from the government to put in a lot of money, making new courts, new centres, new academies to make new players.
“That’s the biggest struggle in Norway. Most of the money doesn’t go to tennis.”
Keeping that in mind, the fact that Ruud is one of the top-ranked players in the world speaks volumes. But his rise hasn’t been met with universal acclaim by all.
‘Vulturing’ is a term used to describe the phenomena when quality players enter weaker tournaments and beat lower-ranked players to get points and rise up the rankings.
And it is something that many believed Ruud benefitted from. In one sense, it’s easy to understand why – the highest-ranked player he beat in the summer of 2021, when he won three titles, was ranked 49th in the world.
However, it is also a case of different circumstances for different players. This summer saw many of the top stars in tennis head to Tokyo for the postponed 2020 Olympics.
Others chose to use this period for a little rest, a decision that made sense given the bio-bubble fatigue many doubtless felt.
Ruud, however, chose to pack his calendar and won three straight ATP 250 titles at Bastad, Gstaad, and Kitzbuhel. He didn’t cheat to rise up the rankings; he simply took advantage of the circumstances in front of him and make the most of it.
Another criticism thrown his way is his prowess on clay courts. It is another age-old tennis trope; players who are supremely proficient on clay are often pigeonholed.
And Ruud, who grew up idolizing Rafael Nadal, is similar to his idol in the way he can dominate on clay. However, the criticism on the subject doesn’t bother him too much.
“You have clay players that have maybe struggled doing as well on hard courts and those will get criticised.
“But you also have hard court players or grass players who maybe struggle doing well on clay, and that will always be the case.
“You can argue whether one surface is better than the other, everyone will have their opinion and that’s fine, but in my opinion I prefer the clay both to play and to watch matches on.”
Casper Ruud tasted the bulk of his success on hard courts during his junior career. However, as mentioned before, his senior career has seen him succeed mostly on clay courts.
Ruud is a physical player and will look to grind and tire his opponents out. This explains why he’s found so much success on clay; but it isn’t his main weapon on the surface.
No, that would be his heavy forehand shot. It is the shot that generates a huge amount of topspin and also bounces awkwardly, leaving many unable to properly deal with the shot.
That being said, his game is still a work in progress. By his own admission, he is uncomfortable on other surfaces because “more competitors can hit me off the court”.
However, he is no slouch on other surfaces. One of his titles this year came on the hard courts of San Diego in an ATP 250 tournament.
His overall results across surfaces have also been solid, and he’s risen high in the game despite not yet being the finished article.
The future indeed looks bright for the boy from Oslo.