Zverev, Ruud and a French renaissance

ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai
Jun 09, 2023 01:23 PM IST

Casper Ruud takes on Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals of the French Open men's singles.

As Alexander Zverev tested every ounce of Rafael Nadal’s clay-court skills in two highly-competitive sets for three hours and counting in last year's French Open semi-final, Casper Ruud braced for a long night of watching and waiting to know his final opponent.

French Open: Alexander Zverev in action.(AFP)
French Open: Alexander Zverev in action.(AFP)

"All of a sudden it ended his year. That was unfortunate," Ruud recalled. "We’re going to give it our all."

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That’s because Ruud, like his 2023 Roland Garros semi-final opponent, has waded through a season of struggle to relive a renaissance in the French capital that gave them plenty of delight a year ago.

Pain too, in Zverev’s case. Then world No.3, the Tokyo Olympics champion was playing some of the best tennis of his career in Paris last year. Coming off a quarter-final win over Carlos Alcaraz, the gritty German was locked 6-7(6), 6-6 in a brutal tussle with Nadal when a nasty fall tore the ligaments in his ankle and transported him off Court Philippe-Chatrier on a wheelchair.

The ankle injury, and scenes of anguish, not only ended his French Open but also the rest of the season.

"Last year was the most difficult year of my life," Zverev, 26, said after his four-set quarter-final win over Argentine Tomas Martin Etcheverry. "I love tennis with all my heart, I love the competitiveness and that was taken away exactly one year ago."

More than six months out, Zverev returned to competitive action and lost in the second round of the Australian Open. Still not pain free for the next 3-4 months, the lanky German struggled to break free from the shackles of the injury’s after-effects. With a semi-final at the ATP 250 Dubai in February his best show, the former world No.2 lost almost as many matches as he won (16-14 win-loss record) and arrived at the French Open down in the bookmakers’ list and 27th in the rankings.

Not as much in his belief. His mind cleared from the shadows of that misery on Chatrier — “I don't think about it anymore”, he said — Zverev returned to the same court for the second round this year and played with the same flair and aggression in his game. The big-moment mentality of a Grand Slam finalist too was back, stepping up in the two tie-breakers with 12th seed Frances Tiafoe in the third round and after dropping the second set against Etcheverry.

"It (French Open) was definitely a tournament that I marked on my calendar this year," Zverev, in his third straight French Open last four, said on Wednesday. “Sometimes it's also about reminding yourself of who you were, and what kind of matches you have won in the past.”

No better place for that than the clay courts of Paris for Zverev. So too for Ruud.

The Norwegian's 2022 French Open conclusion wasn't nearly as dramatic; losing to Nadal in a final there rarely is. Ruud even kicked on for greater deeds as the season wore on, winning an ATP 250 title in Gstaad and making the final of US Open and the year-ending ATP Finals.

The turn of the year oscillated results drastically for the 24-year-old. Ruud could not patch together two straight wins, including the Australian Open, until April when he finally strung four for an ATP 250 clay-court title in Estoril. The W-L trend continued on the other side of it — the Rome semi-finals being the lone exception — right until the week before the French Open where the world No.4 lost his second match in the ATP 250 Geneva.

But back on the dirt of Roland Garros and after navigating a couple of early tests, Ruud felt increasingly at home. Seemingly more in this year's final night session on Chatrier, overcoming Holger Rune – he had lost to the Dane in Rome – 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

“My biggest win of the year, considering how it has been," Ruud said.

Ruud’s solid and steady baseline play will test Zverev’s bursts of belligerence and, unlike the German, knows the feel of winning a semi-final at Roland Garros. The feel of simply being there on the back of troubled times, however, is bound to transcend the net.

"It's great to see Sascha back. I think both for him and me, this is our biggest result this year," Ruud said. "We will try to play with our shoulders down and just enjoy it.”

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