Casper Ruud was an unexpected finalist at the French Open from his half of the draw, but by no means was the achievement undeserved. The clay court specialist, who had never before gone beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam, and third round at the French Open, was facing his boyhood ‘idol’ Rafael Nadal for the first time on Sunday.

As was expected, the Spaniard, at whose academy Ruud had been training since 2018, raced away to a 14th Roland Garros title with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 win. But the Norwegian – the first man from his country to get this far in a Major – still drew happy memories from the experience.

“There are certain moments I think for everyone’s career that you’ll remember more than others, so this one will be high up on my list, biggest match I ever played,” said the world No 6 – after the updated rankings on Monday.

“He’s a player I have watched on TV for the past 16, 17 years. To be there myself and face him, it’s a bit of a challenge, but a very enjoyable one... Of course I wish I could make the match closer, but at the end of the day I can hopefully one day tell my grandkids that I played Rafa on Chatrier in the final, and they will probably say, ‘Wow, did you?’ I will say, ‘Yes’. I’m probably going to enjoy this moment for a long time.”

There were just a few brief moments of resistance from the 23-year-old who was playing Nadal for the first time. In the third set, he managed to win just eight points as the Spaniard won 11 games on the trot to finish off the match.

“Match points are always the most memorable, and he finished the match in style with a winner down the line,” Ruud said. “Seeing the ball drop on the line, that’s what I can remember the most for now.”

He added: “And of course, stepping onto the court. Something that’s a bit funny when he plays, when the announcer does the intro and he says all the times he (Nadal) has won the tournament, it never stops, it seems like. That takes like half a minute just to say all the years. I think that is also something I will remember.”

Ruud is now the eight player to have faced Nadal in a French Open final and failed to overcome the Spaniard – the list includes Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. And he understood first-hand how difficult it is to play the Spaniard in the Parisian fortress that has seen Nadal win each of the 14 finals he’s reached.

“I said before the match that I guess it is (tough). But now I think I know it is. At least what I have faced. It’s really challenging and really tough. But I already knew it in a way,” he said.

“I got a little bit of a cheap break of serve in the second set and was up 3-1, and of course wanted to get the match going and maybe try to win the set. But then he stepped up and he showed that when he needs to, he plays great.

“It was tough for me to really know where I should play the ball because from both sides, he (is) strong. On the forehand he plays with a little bit of spin and kind of feels like you’re playing a right-handed forehand. I didn’t know exactly where to play there in the end, and he made me run around the court too much. When you are playing defensive against Rafa on clay, he will eat you alive.”

And this was a Nadal who has been struggling with a recurring foot injury. In the final though, Ruud claimed he was prepared for if the injury would flair up, but Nadal showed no signs of discomfort.

“It was in the back of my mind that something can happen and that I should not give up no matter what because whatever the score is, it might be that something can occur to him. But he looked sharp, he looked fine, and moving well. It’s impressive that he has been able to kind of forget about that foot and played very well here,” said Ruud.

This may have been the first time they played in a competitive match. But they’ve met across the net many times at Nadal’s academy in Manacor, Mallorca.

“He plays the same style in practice and matches. He takes the practice very seriously, and so do I. If we practice and play sets we both want to try and win, of course, and have a good practice. But the circumstances were a bit different today. It was the first time I have experienced this situation, playing a Grand Slam final. I don’t think it really got to me until I stepped on court today and saw the full stadium and felt the atmosphere in the crowd,” said Ruud.

“It was a bit tough to (make) myself comfortable in the situation in the beginning, but as the match went on, I tended to feel a little bit better, and I could calm down and breathe out a little bit more. But it was challenging because you are playing him, the most-winning Slam player ever, and on this court in the final, it’s not too easy.

“But it was worth a shot, and a good experience, for sure.”


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