Casper Ruud is quickly evolving into one of the world’s premier players on clay. The 21-year-old has racked up a 42-22 record on the surface during the most difficult stage of any athlete’s career, the very beginning.
Earlier this year, he captured his maiden ATP title in Buenos Aires. On Thursday, the Norwegian will face one of the game’s best clay-courters in Fabio Fognini at the Hamburg European Open. Fognini is still recovering from double arthroscopic ankle surgery, but few players are more comfortable on the dirt. Fognini ranks fifth among active players with eight clay-court titles, trailing only the Big 3 and Dominic Thiem.
Ruud produces more spin per shot than almost anyone on tour. In his win over heavy-hitter Matteo Berrettini in Rome, Ruud out-spun the Italian by a significant margin on both his forehand and backhand. Ruud’s forehand averaged nearly 10 more rotations per second than Berrettini’s, while his backhand averaged nearly 20 more rotations per second. Combine that Nadal-esque spin with Ruud’s crisp and disciplined footwork, and you have a nightmare across the net.
By working his legs to hit both the inside and outside of the ball, Ruud is able to stretch his opponents far off the court. Once he gains control of the point with his forehand, he’s unlikely to relinquish it.
Ruud’s signature shot is his forehand inside-in. His spin allows him to bring the ball up and down over the high part of the net, and once the ball hits the clay, it explodes out of the opponent’s reach.
What makes Thursday's second-round matchup so enticing is Fognini’s ability to take the ball on the rise and counteract heavy spin with his incredible timing, which remains second to none.
We’ve seen it against Nadal on clay. Fognini will step up in the court and strike clean winners before the ball jumps out of his strike zone. Don’t try this at home, because you will probably shank it over the fence.
At full health, Fognini’s timing and ability to handle heavy spin would likely give him the edge, but after losing his Rome opener, and narrowly escaping Philipp Kohlschreiber in three sets Tuesday, the match-tested and in-form Ruud feels like a safe bet.
The Pick: Casper Ruud