Casper Ruud is making the most of his favorite part of the ATP calendar in 2021.

Casper Ruud has 29 losses in his young ATP career on both hard and clay courts. The difference is that he has 21 wins on one surface, and nearly triple that on the other.

The 22-year-old's comfort on clay has been evident from his early days. And with his 7-5, 6-2 win over Tennys Sandgren in the second round of the Geneva Open on Wednesday, Ruud improved to 58-29 on the slow surface. On clay, Ruud has emerged in the pros, reaching progressively higher milestones each year. In 2017, as a 208th-ranked wild card, he reached the ATP 500 semifinals of Rio de Janeiro; in 2018, he won his main-draw debut at Roland Garros; in 2019, he contested his first ATP final in Houston, and advanced to the third round of the French Open.

Last year, before the pandemic forced tennis to stop for five months, Ruud went a step further in lifting his first ATP trophy at Santiago. And in September, at the rescheduled Internazionali BNL D’Italia in Rome, he advanced to his first ATP Masters 1000 semifinal after ousting No. 8 Matteo Berrettini—for another first, a Top 10 victory.

As Ruud shares in our latest TENNIS Conversation, he thought to himself after that week at the Foro Italico, "will this be a one-hit wonder, or will this happen again?" If what the Norwegian has done ahead of this year's French Open is any indication—tacking on Masters 1000 semifinals in Monte Carlo and Madrid thanks to five Top 20 wins (including No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas) and bettering his career-high ranking to No. 16—there are plenty more chart-toppers to come for Ruud in Paris, and beyond.

No one knows when, or if, we’ll return to “normal” again. At least from the outside, it looks like you’ve really got a handle on how to adapt since the restart. What's been the key for you in rolling with the punches? Is that just naturally in your DNA?

RUUD: Well, we're all here to go to work. This is our job to play tennis, and be here to focus. And when you're an athlete, we say it’s normal that your job is 24/7. Because you always have to take care of what you eat, what you do. And you're always preparing for the next match, I would say, and trying to get your body as good as possible and your shape as good as possible.

We're usually in big cities. To walk around a little bit and have dinner at a restaurant is probably the thing that has changed the most. And then also not having the fans there at most of the tournaments is also a big change for us. But ultimately we're here to do a job. And the day goes by pretty quick when you're playing a match and you're playing a tournament. Because you do all this stuff you have to do to prepare. Our work usually means that we have to rest a lot in between the matches. So to me, I haven't felt that big of a sacrifice. The toughest part, I think, is that you're always a bit scared to get infected.

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Speaking of sacrifice, the European clay-court swing was greatly reduced in 2020. That's not the case this year. For someone who loves this part of the calendar, has that given you extra motivation to perform well, after seeing what it’s like to have it taken away?

RUUD: Yeah. Last year it was tough to accept or acknowledge that we had to take a break and that there were no tournaments from Indian Wells until we started again in Cincinnati. And those months are a very exciting time, for me especially, who likes to play on clay. There were a lot of tournaments back in Europe where I'm from that got canceled. And I was in good shape. I had made two finals in my last three tournaments when they stopped the tour. I won my first title... I was really looking forward to playing the main draws in the clay-court events and the grass-court events during the spring and summertime in Europe. And it was all taken away.

So that was a bit tough. I think I've just kept the motivation for these tournaments for over a year now. I guess I would say I'm double motivated as I was last year. And I think that's something that I'm using well to my advantage. Because I know that most people on the tour, they prefer to play on a hard court. They're not maybe as motivated as I am on the clay-court tournaments.

Your week in Monte Carlo: where does that rank in terms of being the strongest representation of what you're capable of producing on clay?

RUUD: It was one of my best weeks. And a week where I had many good wins. Three Top 20 wins in a row, beating a Top 10 player and beating the defending champion. It was a great feeling. This gave me a lot of confidence. And last year when I made semifinals in Rome, you say like, "Oh, will this be a one-hit wonder, or will this happen again?" You have to take care of your chances.

And in Monte Carlo, I think I proved, also for myself, that I'm able to do that and compete well on this surface. That's the most important thing to know, that Rome was not just a one-time case.

And last year when I made semifinals in Rome, you say like, 'Oh, will this be a one hit wonder, or will this happen again?'

At the majors, you've taken positive steps forward every year. The same could be said about your play away from clay. How have you progressed as an athlete, and found ways to raise your own bar?

RUUD: I think from, let's say, two or three years back, I've improved both physically and mentally, and I'm stronger now. I have more knowledge now than I had three years ago, and I'm more mature. I think I also believe a bit more in myself than I did three years ago. And that comes naturally when you improve and when you get higher in the rankings. You also gain confidence.

I feel more complete and I’m a better player, obviously, than three years ago. And that's the way you want things to go. Hopefully, I can say the same in three years. But it doesn't necessarily mean it will happen. Now, I've come to a point where they're only around 20 guys ahead of me, and those 20 guys are really good players, the competition just gets tougher and tougher the further you get. So it [might] not be that in three years, if I'm ranked 40 or 50 or 80 or even 200. Hopefully, I won't have any injuries. But you have to count on that something's coming. Hopefully I'm even higher in the rankings, but there's no guarantee in this point. And I think that's what makes this sport very exciting and special.

Switching gears: who on tour do you believe is an underrated practice partner on clay specifically?

RUUD: Every time I practice with Albert Ramos-Vinolas, he tends to kick my ass. So I would say that he's my biggest practice rival. It's either very close or he kicks my ass. It's very rare that I win the practice.

He's a bit of, maybe, an anonymous player for many tennis fans. He's not the biggest player with the most flashy shots, but he's a very good clay-court player and nice guy. He's also taught me some things on the clay court. I've known him for some time now, and he's always good to practice with.

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Ramos-Vinolas won his first four matches with Ruud before the Norwegian managed to solve the lefty.

Ramos-Vinolas won his first four matches with Ruud before the Norwegian managed to solve the lefty.

Do you have a routine when it comes to eating during Roland Garros? Obviously restrictions and precautions have impacted this, but are you someone who likes to put down the same meal, or change up the pace?

RUUD: I usually mix up either Asian or Italian. Could be that I have some steak after a match to get some protein. But usually it goes Thai, Japanese or Italian, mostly.

Right before a match, I and many other players, tend to be very clean. Just plain rice or pasta with some chicken maybe, but not too much sauce, to just get some carbohydrates and energy. You hope that you don't play long, but you need a lot of carbohydrates just in case.

Lastly, it's time to put you on the spot. Who are you tipping to win this weekend's PGA Championship?

RUUD: In golf, you definitely have your ranking. But it's a bit different than tennis. Whenever there's a golf tournament, you feel like almost anyone can win. Whilst the last 15 years in ATP tennis has basically only had three or four guys winning the biggest tournaments. So it's a bit different, and more difficult to predict.

I like DJ (Dustin Johnson), Justin Thomas and obviously Rory (McIlroy). And I like the way, also, Bryson (DeChambeau) has changed his game a bit. Any of those four to win. And I have to say my countryman, Viktor Hovland. I have to choose one, I have to pick him. I almost forgot about him a bit there (laughter), but he's always on my list for a bet in golf.