OSLO, Norway—People-watching: it’s one of life’s addicting activities that doesn’t cost a dime to pass the time. It can be especially useful when the forecast isn’t great, or when finding yourself in an unfamiliar city.

Looking outside my hotel room in Oslo, snowflakes signal winter is already here. Icy sidewalks have a mushy consistency, though foot traffic hasn’t thawed. Bundled-up locals enter and exit train stations. By the waterfront, runners come and go, and the cafes in sight aren’t short on caffeine-seeking customers. Roads are filled with streams of cars that start and stop for stoplights evoking familiar colors of the holiday season. Like time on a rustic clocktower, this city and its people are unassumingly moving forward—business as usual.

One resident has taken this approach to the global stage—and in doing so has usurped his father as Norway’s most prolific tennis player at the ripe age of 22. Casper Ruud enjoyed his share of shining moments in a pandemic-interrupted 2020 that included his first ATP title, but his progression a year later has seen Oslo’s tennis son glide into the upper echelon at encouraging speed.

Ruud’s historic rise to the Top 10 in 2021 did not come on the back of one flashy tournament run, but rather unremitting weekly gains that produced a substantial season. In May, he told me about the importance of “protecting his chances” ahead of his title run in Geneva. Dig a little bit beyond his five titles and 57 match wins and you’ll find Ruud protected his opportunities like Andrei Vasilevskiy, goalie of his family’s favorite NHL team, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.


When Ruud reached a final in 2021, he never fell short of the finish line. After his only real disappointing month of the year—June—which saw him drop five-setters at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Ruud cleaned up in July. Eleven straight victories on clay brought him three titles in three weeks at Bastad, Gstaad and Kitzbuhel.

After Nick Kyrgios went off on Twitter about this stretch of victories at relatively minor events bringing “zero hype,” Ruud asked the Australian to divulge his favorite clay-court tournament on a well-timed social media Q&A for the then-defending Citi Open champion. A “hahahaha” from Kyrgios followed, before he worked in one more dig by stating Ruud was “stealing points.”

So, the next week, on a new surface in Toronto, Ruud‘s two wins raised his unbeaten streak to 13 matches overall—augmented by the “hard courts :)” message he penned on a camera lens.

“I have seen a lot of people probably questioning my ability to play on [a] hard court, so just thought it was funny to write a little note. It was not to someone specific,” he assured press after advancing to the last eight.

Heading into this year, Ruud was 16-27 on hard courts. Only looking onward, he turned the past on its head, going 27-10 on the surface. Ruud’s first trip to the second week of a major did not come at Roland Garros, as expected, but rather at the Australian Open. After adding a second hard-court win over Reilly Opelka in his Laver Cup debut, Ruud knocked off Andy Murray, Lorenzo Sonego, Grigor Dimitrov and Cameron Norrie to collect his first hard-court trophy in San Diego. He navigated his position as the youngest qualifier in the ATP Finals field commendably, shaking off lopsided first sets to upstage Norrie and Andrey Rublev—a player who was 4-0 in their head-to-head series previously—to earn a place in the semifinals on his first appearance.


WATCH: Ruud kicks off our ATP Player of the Year countdown


While his deepest Masters runs came on clay, with semifinals in Monte Carlo and Madrid, Ruud protected his seeding at three of the four remaining 1000 events—all on hard courts—in Toronto, Cincinnati and Paris by only bowing out to Top 5 opponents in the quarterfinals. Of the points Ruud posted during the 2021 race, just under 40 percent were accrued across hard-court play.

Goodbye specialist label, hello ATP Most Improved Player of the Year nomination. (Ruud was also shortlisted for the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award, and his dad Christian is in the running for Coach of the Year.)

Following his elimination at the season finale, Ruud stated he was “proud of the year” he put together, yet his mind had already shifted towards what's needed to take even bigger steps come 2022.

“I played the No. 1 and 2 guys in the world this week. They've beaten me fairly comfortably,” he expressed with his defeats coming at the hands of Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev. “That makes me want to seek revenge and become a better player for the next year, all the years coming.”

Ruud lost his season opener over three sets, then went 14-0 in deciders at ATP tournaments. Some outrageous point stealing, one might say. With his leaps and bounds the past 10 months, it’s difficult to imagine the world No. 8 not finding a way to translate that pedigree under pressure to the Grand Slam events in the near future. It may not come as fast as his hard-court awakening, but rest assured, Ruud won’t let any rough patch of weather put a freeze on driving his advancement forward.