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Casper the Friendly Host: Behind the scenes with the Ruud family in Oslo
The 23-year-old world No. 7 has demonstrated that he can evolve across the board. As the ATP calendar moves to his playground of choice, red clay, Norway's greatest tennis talent just might be ready for a breakout on the big stage.
Published Apr 11, 2022
TenniStory: Casper Ruud
OSLO, Norway—At an indoor facility in Oslo, Casper Ruud arrives to meet up with dad Christian for game night. It’s wintertime, when frigid conditions and limited daylight force the duo to trade in a traditional round of golf for a virtual version of their shared passion. Equipped with a fresh set of Yonex clubs, Casper pulls the cover off a 3-wood and addresses the tee.
The opening shot into the giant projector screen is average by his own admission, though it still leaves the younger Ruud in position to attack the green. He takes his glove off, tosses it to the side and strikes a short iron. He holes out for an eagle.
As Christian reacts with calm dissatisfaction, Casper turns around with an affable grin stretched across his face.
“The momentum has changed. Ever since I broke into the Top 100 in the world, things have been easier,” the 23-year-old tells me with a chuckle. “I’m playing with less pressure, even on the golf course.
“He used to beat me a lot when I was younger. But the past year or two, I’ve been a little bit better.”
Unamused, Christian is quick to point out his son has an unfair advantage.
“I started playing when I was 18. He’s luckier because he has a better technique,” he says with a now familiar smile. “When he has time off, normally we play together. It’s still competitive and he likes to play rough with me also. I’m happy about that.”
Adds Casper, “I always enjoy a challenge and golf is the same. You’re really playing yourself and your own emotions. In tennis, you have only splits of a second to react, while golfing, you have minutes in between your shots.”
After spending a day with the Ruuds, one recurring way of living surfaced: any activity can be transformed into a contest, but there’s a kid-on-the-playground purity always present. While banter keeps Casper’s actions light-hearted, encouragement is the dominant language. Bubbling underneath it all is strategic intention to keep the competitive juices flowing inside the boy who was initially inspired by Rafael Nadal’s first Roland Garros title run to become Norway’s greatest tennis talent—and potential future heir to the Paris throne.
“In the beginning, it was just for fun, playing around with my classmates. But then the older I got, I was always wanting to improve,” Ruud reflected at his tennis training base with my colleague Kyle MacLelland. “I dreamed about being a professional player. I wanted to be on TV one day and play on the big stages.”
Following a morning practice, a drive across the city brought us to see Ruud’s ongoing vow to improvement with longtime strength and conditioning coach Marcel da Cruz. At the Magnat Center, da Cruz took his student through an hour of flexibility, movement and stability exercises. But that was only one side of the equation. In between grueling sets, Ruud engaged an assisting physio in a series of competitions—a bean bag wall toss, a soccer ball header challenge, and what can only be described as a creative adaptation of the basketball game H-O-R-S-E.
These intervals are specifically placed to foster a productive atmosphere, one with an end goal of preparing Ruud to feel his best physically and mentally on match days.
“The environment is different to tournaments, but the framework is the same,” says da Cruz. “Casper gets it. He’s a doer, no excuses.”
If ever there was proof of concept for this formula, Ruud’s 2021 season is a glowing testimonial. Having already surpassed his father’s benchmark as the highest-ranked player from his nation in 2020, when he became the first Norwegian to win an ATP title, Casper’s gloves really came off a year later. He went 5–0 in finals—all at the 250 level—which included three clay-court crowns in three weeks over the summer in Europe.
Previously deemed as a specialist on red dirt, Ruud began the process of removing that label by reaching the fourth round of a major for the first time at the Australian Open, winning his first hard-court trophy in San Diego, and qualifying for the semifinals at the season-ending ATP Finals en route to finishing 2021 ranked No. 8.
“In one way, I can always be the underdog when I play on hard courts,” says Ruud. “It’s a fun mix because I need to slice a little bit more, try to come to the net. I’m always trying to become a better player.”
Pleased with his progress across the board, clay remains Ruud’s schoolyard of choice. It highlights his quickness around the court, but more than anything, the extra time to set up allows his heavy topspin forehand to be fully employed as a weapon. It’s a shot Christian first identified as a strength during his son’s early teenage years and realized that with a commitment to development, it could stand up in a modern era of men’s tennis defined by distinguished groundstrokes.
“It’s evolving every year. I think it’s one of the best forehands on the tour,” says Christian, a former Top 40 player. “That’s also been our goal since he was 15, 16.
“Someone has to have the best forehand in the world. So, let’s try and make it so Casper will be that person.”
Respect and openness are two traits Casper conveyed from the beginning when trusting his dad’s background. Christian boasts about the kind nature and maturity of his three kids, and for wife Lele, it’s an area she feels was one of her supreme contributions in their formative years.
“His attitude, the way he appears with people and comes through the TV, I’m very proud of,” she says. “I am more in the background, but we have a close relationship. He shares a lot of things. I’m very happy that he is open.”
Says Felix Auger-Aliassime of his peer, “Casper is a great person. He’s always handled himself with a lot of respect and integrity. As a player, he’s fierce and built a style of play that’s very consistent. He deserves where he is now. I have a ton of respect for the work he’s done.”
Chimes in Stefanos Tsitsipas, “He has one of the most heavy strokes on the tour. He has picked up a lot in experience and consistency. He is someone who covers the court really well and uses a lot of tactics in his game.”
Grigor Dimitrov echoes both sentiments. “I think consistency for me is the biggest key for what happened last year. No doubt about it. He’s been able to back it up, so a lot of credit to him. Casper’s diligent in his work. That makes him very dangerous.”
For more than a decade, Ruud has worked with technical advisor Oivind Sorvald to make suggested tweaks based on video analysis. Neither Sorvald nor Christian believe in presenting major changes, instead focusing on positive reinforcement by identifying small adjustments to implement.
“Casper is a visual guy,” says Sorvald. “It’s about understanding when to intervene so he can transfer it into his game.”
Someone has to have the best forehand in the world. So, let’s try and make it so Casper will be that person.—Christian Ruud
Like any top-tier player, Ruud envisions breaking into the major winner’s club. Transferring consistent smaller-tournament success to the sport’s grandest stages is the next logical step, with a modest 14–13 career record in Grand Slam competition. He didn’t get the opportunity this past January when an ankle injury suffered in practice put Ruud in a precarious position: play the Australian Open at 80 to 90 percent and risk greater damage, or withdraw. He chose the latter.
Watching from Oslo, Ruud couldn’t help but be stimulated by the effort from Nadal. The Spaniard, who missed five months of the 2021 season with a left foot injury, clinched a men’s record 21st Grand Slam singles title at age 35 by rallying from two sets down to edge Daniil Medvedev in five hours and 24 minutes.
“It’s inspiring. I think his whole career has been motivating for other fans, players, people who are watching him,” the frequent guest of the Rafa Nadal Academy shared from Buenos Aires, when we caught up later over Zoom. “If you met him in the street, you would have no idea that he had won 21 Grand Slams, because he’s very humble, and never gets ahead of himself. He always takes every match and every day seriously.”
Restarting his 2022 campaign in Buenos Aires, Ruud woke up after his first match back feeling better than expected, and capped off the week with a final-round win over Diego Schwartzman. It reminded the top seed of his victory lap two years earlier when he walked away from Argentina’s capital with his first tour-level title—a moment preceded by a five-set, first-round loss Down Under, and an extended training block at home.
“When I’m forced to skip a tournament, due to injury, or if I lose early, I always find I’m very good at motivating myself to get back what has been lost, in a way,” he stated. “I think that’s one of my better qualities as a player, actually.
“What happened in Australia [this year] will motivate me to do well in the next Grand Slams and the next chances I get.” (He would later reach his first Masters 1000 final, on a hard court no less, at the Miami Open)
Ruud is a go-getter with remarkable energy around him. If Norway’s groundbreaker can figure out how to treat the pressure he feels in a best-of-five-set environment like it’s a day on the golf course with his father, Roland Garros will one day be a playground ruled by Casper the friendly host.