A professional tennis player will hit well over a million shots in their career, but the best – the scampering winners, the aces under extreme pressure, the cathartic smashes and outrageous flukes – leave a trail of ecstasy that never truly fizzles out. When competing at the highest level, those single shots can define not only matches but legacies, a bounce between success and failure. And with stakes so high, the world’s best players tend not to forget.
Casper Ruud was barely 18 years old when he received a wildcard to compete at the Rio Open in 2017. Armed with youthful hunger and a heavy forehand, he defied all odds to reach the semi-finals. That result should have counted as an unqualified success, the type of dreamlike entrance reserved for one of the future’s headline acts, but after taking the first set against Pablo Carreño Busta, just one point separated Ruud from the final. A tennis player’s mind is a gift but also a curse. Within all the euphoria, the errant shots and chances spurned are burnt into memory, too.
“If I had won that point and reached the final, I would’ve cracked the top-100 [in the world rankings]. I was just one shot away,” says Ruud. “I was on the finish line but I couldn’t cross it. It was a bitter feeling to get so close. You learn that in so many of our matches, it can all depend on just four or five points.”
The fine margins in tennis can be unforgiving. In the end, it took Ruud almost another two years to reach the top-100, competing at lower-rung events, hustling for ranking points, fluctuating with a little volatility between three-figure rankings. “I wouldn’t call it tough because I enjoyed it, but you have to learn to accept defeat,” he says. “Even when it’s tough to swallow.”
If it was a painful, although perhaps always inevitable, learning curve, the truth remains that Ruud’s development has surpassed any set schedule. Still only 22, he is likely to be the 13th seed in the men’s singles at Wimbledon next week, owing to a brilliant clay-court swing that included a title in Geneva and, most memorably, a straight sets victory against French Open finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas. Suggestions that the Big Three’s stranglehold is loosening have often proven to be false dawns, but Ruud is at least now a recognisable part of that group of young pretenders vying to inherit a piece of the shadow.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to put your arms in the air and say you’ve made it there,” he says. “I’m part of this group now, but then the hard work starts. I want to prove I’m here to stay and be able to truly fight for the biggest titles. Rafa [Nadal] has lost to a couple of young guys on clay. [Daniil] Medvedev has taken [Novak] Djokovic to tough battles. I think tournaments are starting to become a bit more open with more players able to fight, and I want to be part of that bright future.”
One of the criticisms of tennis’s next generation is that, albeit a little unfairly, they can often feel homogenous. Federer is defined by a sense of majesty, Nadal by bullish force, Djokovic by unbreakable will. But their would-be successors are increasingly powerful and aggressive baseline players, tailor-made in academies, built for lasting success. It is no slight but, in the silhouette of such a holy trinity, it can sometimes underwhelm. But while Ruud does fit the prototype – the son of a former professional, moulded into a world No 1 junior and mentally prepared for the rigorous hamster wheel of life on tour – he also has a streak of unorthodoxy.
Tennis’s relevance in Norway pales like the light in winter and, on Oslo’s coldest weekends, the ball would hardly bounce when Ruud trained with his father, Christian. He stresses that he was never forced into tennis, having also shown a keen talent for golf – “on the toughest training days, when you’re running non-stop, I think golf would’ve been a better choice,” he laughs – but within those icy conditions a fire was born and his work ethic was ingrained into the goosebumps. “I made my choice and we put in a lot of work from when I was about 12. There were days when you’re tired or overtrained but that’s when you have to be pushed if you want to go far. That’s how I drove away from my competitors.”
Ruud has already surpassed his father’s career-high ranking of No 39. It makes him the greatest male player in Norway’s history, even if that fact can feel rather ludicrous at such an early stage in his career. “We don’t really have the tradition, the best clubs or facilities,” he says. “I was lucky to be able to play. We have footballers, other athletes, it’s not like I’m a big superstar but hopefully I can help it grow.”
But, for now, the first priority is to break a longstanding family curse. “I think Wimbledon is the highlight for most players, it’s special. My father played there six times and never got past the first round so we have to end this bad streak, for the family and Norway,” he says. After all, even for an ardent clay-court player, it takes just one shot and the blink of an eye to reverse a fortune.
‘I didn’t think I’d play again’: CoCo Vandeweghe’s long road to recovery comes full circle at Wimbledon
Andrew Castle talks Wimbledon 2021, feeling vulnerable and stepping away from social media
Wimbledon 2021: Stefanos Tsitsipas leads pack hoping to stop Novak Djokovic’s march