SHOT OF THE DAY: Casper Ruud, at the ATP Cup

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ATP: Casper Ruud

It still seems sacrilege to pick a player outside the Big Three to win a major. But Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev have opened the proverbial door with consecutive US Open titles, signaling a slightly choppy sea change that will on continue in earnest—and across all surfaces.

On clay, Rafael Nadal took only his third-ever loss at Roland Garros in 2021, and his path towards a 14th title on the terre battue will only get tougher thanks to the likes of Norwegian dirtballer Ruud.

Could Ruud, rather than Rafa, win Roland Garros?

Could Ruud, rather than Rafa, win Roland Garros?

“When people are facing Nadal on the clay court, many of them will already think they lost before going out on court because you know how tough it will be,” Ruud said last spring. “If I can maybe achieve a small percentage of that kind of respect he has in every other player, I’m happy with that.”

Coached by father and former pro Christian Ruud, the 23-year-old began racking up clay-court bonafides at the end of 2020 with a maiden Masters 1000 semifinal in Rome, and expanded that resume with two more semis in Monte Carlo and Madrid. Of his six ATP titles, five have come on clay, including a hat trick of summer European events that helped him amass a 13-match winning streak.

Though that belief has translated to increased hard-court success, his heavy topspin forehand is most rewarded on clay. After laying an impressive foundation, Ruud looks ready to slide into greater success in 2022.

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No one doubts that Sabalenka has the game and the intensity to defeat anyone, anywhere. Can she do it seven straight times, though?

No one doubts that Sabalenka has the game and the intensity to defeat anyone, anywhere. Can she do it seven straight times, though?

WTA: Aryna Sabalenka

“We need a few more Grand Slams in the year,” joked the jovial Belarusian on Instagram in September. “Don’t you think so?”

The caption came days after a devastating US Open semifinal defeat to Leylah Fernandez, but based on how close Sabalenka was to Slam success in 2021, many would have liked her chances given additional opportunities.

At Wimbledon, the 23-year-old Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal—and then her first semifinal—in 15 attempts, acquitting herself well against eventual runner-up Karolina Pliskova.

“I was almost crying,” she said after surviving Elena Rybakina in a breakthrough fourth-round win, “but then I cooled down and understood this is not the final goal.”

Always uncensored but now uninhibited, Sabalenka repeated the final-four feat with less fanfare in New York, playing confident tennis before running into the Canadian buzzsaw and bowing out in three sets. Refusing to let the loss undo her progress, Sabalenka acknowledged what most believe to be true: she’s almost there.

“I know it will come one day,” she wrote alongside an inspirational quote: “I don’t care who is doing better than me; I am doing better than I was last year.”

In an uncertain field, the world No. 2 came out on the other side of the pandemic tougher, more refined, and primed to be 2022’s leading lady—no fifth Slam necessary.