01:44 PM GMT November 03, 2019
Had Casper Ruud converted his match point in the 2017 Rio de Janeiro semi-finals, it might have helped propel him into the Next Gen ATP Finals that year. But more than two years after that match, he’s made it to Milan.
The 20-year-old Norwegian makes his debut at the Allianz Cloud on Tuesday against Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic. Ruud has enjoyed a breakout season that has seen him climb more than 50 spots in the ATP Rankings, recording his first ATP Tour final in Houston alongside a pair of semi-finals in Sao Paulo and Kitzbühel.
“This is the week all of us have been waiting for,” Ruud said. “I did really well in the beginning of 2017 and I was really high up in the [ATP Race To Milan], but I didn’t make it that year or last year. It was a big goal for me to be here this year. This was my last chance, so I guess you could say it will be a nice end to my Next Gen career. (Ruud was born in December 1998, therefore making him ineligible for the 2020 Next Gen ATP Finals, which will accept only players born in 1999 or later.)
“Most of our matches on Tour are against guys who are much older, so it’s fun to measure our powers against each other. Everybody here can beat each other with the [unique] scoring system, so it’s something we should be prepared for. One set can just be a difference of one or two points, so it will be a fun event.”
But if Ruud had to pick the week that’s had the biggest impact on his fledgling career so far, he still thinks back to the highs and lows of his run in Rio. He arrived that week as an 18-year-old wild card with an ATP Ranking of No. 208, playing just his second main tour-level main draw an first ATP 500 event. But the Norwegian punched well above his weight by shocking a trio of established clay-court experts for his first tour-level semi-final.
“I was the underdog in every match,” Ruud said. “Nobody knew me or how I played, but I had seen all of these guys on TV and knew how they played. They didn’t really know what to expect from me.”
Ruud held a match point in the second set of his semi-final against Pablo Carreno Busta, but the Spaniard won the next nine games to prevail. Had Ruud won, the victory would have propelled the Norwegian into the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings. The magnitude of the moment wasn’t lost on him as he spent much of the year competing on the ATP Challenger Tour, fully aware he’d be in the main draw of many tour-level events if he’d made good on his chance.
Realising that dwelling on the situation wouldn’t help, Ruud made peace with his circumstances. He worked even harder off the court and cracked the Top 100 this March. But what’s most satisfying to the 20-year-old is that he reached the milestone off a consistent body of results, rather than a single flashy run.
“I was one point away from being in the Top 100 as an 18-year-old, which is a big deal. It’s probably something I thought about a little too much after that week. It was tough to know that I was so close and it could have been an unbelievable rest of the season for me,” Ruud said. “[But] this has been my best year on Tour. I feel more steady and grown up in my game and behaviour than I did during that week in Rio.”
Ruud credits his father, former Top 50 player Christian Ruud, with his on-court success. He freely admits that Norway isn’t known as a tennis hotbed, so having a parent who played on Tour was an ideal substitute when sparring partners weren’t plentiful growing up. Living under the same roof as the only Norwegian player at the time to crack the Top 100 also gave him firsthand knowledge on how to pursue his dreams of a pro tennis career.
“He’s always been there for me and tried to guide me,” Ruud said. “When you’re 13 or 14, it’s easy to think about other things or want to go out to parties. My dad was strict with me in those ways because he knew you have to be serious from a young age if you want to be a professional tennis player. There were some sacrifices, but it’s paid off.”
Read More: Like Father, Like Son: Ruud Makes His Mark
Competing in Milan is just one of the rewards for his years of hard work. But with his 21st birthday a month away, Ruud is one of the “veteran” #NextGenATP players on Tour. He hopes that a big run this week will serve as a springboard to match the success of younger players at the upper echelons of the ATP Rankings like Alex de Minaur, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov.
“I’m not going to say that I feel old, but there are younger players that are doing better than me. It’s something to perhaps gain motivation from,” Ruud said. “I’m a couple of steps behind them now, but I’ve built a good base this year and will hopefully be ready for an even better season next year.”