A little over a year ago, after Casper Ruud won a neat straight sets at a tournament in Toronto, he decided to have a little fun. He handed over a marker to sign the television camera and chose to write a simple message: “hard courts”. He signed it with a smiley face.
His point was clear. He’d heard loud and clear criticisms of his abilities on the surface, the way people questioned him and underestimated him, but he accepted them with a smile. He still worked hard, hoping that he would continue to improve over time.
As he progresses through the best season of his career, the understated tenacity and work pace that Ruud consistently displays continues to bring great success. Despite the pressure to be the favorite in a grand slam semi-final, Ruud held steady from his early nerves and gradually crushed Karen Khachanov, the 27th seed, as he became the first Norwegian man to reach a US Open final and 7-6 won (5), 6-2, 5-7, 6-2.
By reaching the final, Ruud, the fifth seed, has put himself on the verge of achieving the two ultimate achievements in the sport at the same time. Three months after being knocked down by the unstoppable power of Rafael Nadal in the final of the French Open, he will once again play for his first grand slam title. Ruud will also become the new number 1 in the world next week, unless Carlos Alcaraz, who faced Frances Tiafoe that night in the second semifinal, wins the US Open.
So much of the recent history of men’s tennis has been written by three men, players who have racked up the most grand slam titles, packed the final rounds of the events and, even when they didn’t win, absorbed so much attention.
For the first time since the inaugural US Open in 1881, four male players reached their first US Open semifinal simultaneously. Three of those four had never reached a grand slam semifinal. There was no hiding place from the full force of the grand slam pressure, but the rewards were great for anyone brazen enough.
The significance of the opportunity for Ruud and 26-year-old Khachanov was reflected early on in the mutual nerves. Neither player was able to clear as breaks were exchanged, momentum changed hands and both made mistakes. As the set went on, Ruud looked more and more like the more stable, balanced player.
Consistency won, as Ruud took the tiebreak 7-5 with the longest rally of the tournament, refused to miss and ran across the field in defense. On the 54th stroke of by far the longest run of the tournament, Ruud stepped in and hammered a sweet backhand down the line, forcing an error from Khachanov and winning the set.
With a set in his pocket, Ruud played free for a while, but the third set brought some complications. Khachanov served well throughout the set and the pressure mounted until Ruud’s nerves finally betrayed him at 5-6 when he threw a forehand into the net on set point.
But Ruud showed his mental fortitude by bouncing back immediately. He served exceptionally well in the fourth, landed back and then took the decisive break with a spectacular running forehand down-the-line winner as he marched to victory.
There are more spectacular players in the sport, characters that generate more attention and hype, but Ruud has continued at his own pace, trying to improve every time he takes the field. The result is two Grand Slam finals in one year, a feat none of his more prominent contemporaries have achieved to date.
This time, with no 13-time French Open champion on the other side, a great opportunity awaits. Whether he can handle it or not, the 23-year-old has made his intentions clear for years to come. When Novak Djokovic and Nadal finally leave, the men’s draws may open further and more opportunities will open up. With hard work, humility and a cool head, Ruud stays in the picture.