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For second straight year, Casper Ruud moves into Roland Garros final
In two hours and nine minutes of airtight tennis, the 24-year-old Norwegian defeated a resurgent Alexander Zverev, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0.
Published Jun 09, 2023
WATCH: Casper Ruud defeats Alexander Zverev in the 2023 Roland Garros semifinals
Call today’s Roland Garros semifinal between Casper Ruud and Alexander Zverev a rendition of the concept known as “same time, next year.”
For Ruud, what was once new has become familiar. Last year in Paris, Ruud reached his first Grand Slam singles final. Three months later, Ruud again went that far at the US Open. Now he’ll play at a major’s last Sunday for a third time. In two hours and nine minutes of airtight tennis, the 24-year-old Norwegian defeated a resurgent Zverev, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0.
“I think this and the quarterfinal match was one of the best matches that I played this year, so that's [a] good confidence boost going into the final,” said Ruud. “I know that I'm gonna have to play similar, or even better, if I want to have any chance.”
For Zverev, it’s a third straight semifinal exit at Roland Garros. Certainly, that’s frustrating. But when you consider that Zverev last year left the court in a wheelchair after tearing ligaments in his right ankle, getting to the final four yet again was likely more meaningful than usual for such a highly experienced competitor.
“I'm happy that I'm back to where I am so soon after the injury,” said Zverev. “Normally it takes longer. I was in the semifinal of a Grand Slam. That's very positive. I missed out on a chance, yes, but that's life. We move on.”
Though Zverev had beaten Ruud in two of their three prior matches, never had these two played one another on clay. Nor had they ever met in a best-of-five format. Both of those new factors aided Ruud.
As the points played out, another aspect made a major difference. Take two young players. Let one develop a great backhand and there you will have Zverev. Give the other a superb forehand and say hello to Ruud. The player with the forehand will have the advantage, due largely to everything from movement to margin to spin, power, precision, and court positioning. First-rate backhands generate openings and create their share of winners, but the history of tennis has shown they are rarely as lethal as a big forehand.
Time and time again in this match, the Ruud forehand took control of the court, often with depth, intermittently with angles, always with consistency. Fizzing with topspin and pace, it’s one of the single best shots in contemporary tennis.
Zverev consistently made inroads with his brilliant backhand. He also sought to make his way to the net. But despite creating many opportunities, The German was unable to maximize them, winning only 13 of 28 net approaches. It would be interesting to see how much Zverev would improve in that area if he were to play more doubles (doing this greatly enhanced Rafael Nadal’s front court skills). Zverev’s best chance to get on even footing came early in the second set, when Ruud served at 1-2, love-40. But a netted backhand return, followed by a forehand drop shot into the net and an excellent Ruud forehand brought it back to deuce. Soon enough, Ruud held.
“If I break him maybe in the second set, then the match maybe can turn around,” said Zverev. “I don't use those kind of chances, and then at some point it's gonna get tough.
And while Zverev was able to hold serve from a 2-2, love-30 deficit, at 3-all he was broken at love. From there, Zverev only won one more game.
“Everything sort of went my way in the third set,” said Ruud. “I did some points where I did a lot of lobs and he was missing some overheads and then I did some good passings and I was serving great. In the end I felt very comfortable in a way, but you can never know. Even though you're 5-love up, things can change.”
“I think the last two weeks I played exactly how I played last year,” said Zverev. “I think I was kind of back until today. I think today, again, it was difficult for me out there. There is no question about it. But I think the first five matches were great matches.”
While not extraordinarily challenging, Ruud path has hardly been uncluttered. In the second round, he squeaked past qualifier Giulio Zeppieri, 7-5 in the fourth set. Ruud’s round of 16 win over an in-form Nicolas Jarry required three overtime sets. And then came the quarterfinals, Ruud defeating ascending Holger Rune in a rematch of their Roland Garros ‘22 encounter that had included a few acrimonious moments.
Now that Ruud’s in his third Grand Slam final, the novelty of such an effort has likely worn off. It’s one thing to lose a first or even second time going this far, but self-consolation becomes difficult should the player come up short a third straight time.
Worse news for Ruud is that his opponent is Novak Djokovic. In four meetings with Djokovic, Ruud has yet to take a set. None of their matches have come at Grand Slam events.
“So I'm going to have to try to come up with a better game plan and just know I'm going to have to play my best game, my A game, my best level that I've ever played if I want to have a chance against him,” said Ruud.
Then there’s the macro aspect.
Djokovic is seeking a record 23rd Grand Slam singles title, an achievement millions of sports fans clamor to witness. I’m reminded of a Sunday night I spent in Melbourne just over five years ago. Roger Federer was set to play Marin Cilic in the 2018 Australian Open final. Federer was hoping to win his 20th singles major. Walking outside Rod Laver Arena an hour before the match, I asked fans who they wanted to win. Without fail, Federer. Talking to a group of three Federer devotees, I asked why they were so eager to see him emerge victorious. “It’s the chance to see history,” said one.
I countered: “Wouldn’t that also be the case if the other guy won?”