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Casper Ruud awaits dream French Open Tennis matchup with Rafael Nadal

Casper Ruud celebrates his first Grand Slam final in Paris. Photo credit: Roland Garros Facebook

By Ricky Dimon

Idols become rivals. Friends become foes.

That is often how it works in tennis, and–at least four a few hours on Sunday afternoon in Paris–that will be the case when Rafael Nadal and Casper Ruud battle for the French Open title.

It will mark the first-ever meeting between Nadal, 36, and Ruud, 23. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t familiar with each other. Quite the contrary. In September of 2018, the Norwegian made none other than the Rafael Nadal Academy in Mallorca his home training base. He has been a frequent visitor ever since, and naturally that means he has become one of Nadal’s main practice partners.

“I always felt like I’ve played with good intensity in my game and I need it to play well, but I’ve gotten that extra 10 or 20 percent from being there,” Ruud said of the academy in a 2019 interview with the ATP. “That’s the small margin that can change whether you’re No. 10 or No. 60. It’s not like they’ve changed my technique, but they’ve helped with all the strokes. It’s motivating to have Rafa there and even Toni coming to the practices and pushing you a bit more.”

Well, fast forward to 2022 and Ruud is even better than No. 10. The 23-year-old finds himself at eighth in the rankings and he will climb to sixth next week regardless of Sunday’s result. Ruud already made a breakthrough earlier this year by reaching the title match of a Masters 1000 (lost to Carlos Alcaraz in Miami) and now he has made an even bigger leap into a Grand Slam final.

Casper Ruud of Norway celebrates at Roland Garros in Paris, France. (Photo by Mine Kasapoglu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

His reward is a dream matchup with the player who has looked up to pretty much forever.

“I grew up looking up to Rafa, the player I’m gonna face in the final,” Ruud said in a post-match interview following his 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 semifinal victory over Marin Cilic on Friday. “He is a perfect example of how you should behave on court. He has been my idol for all my life.”

In his press conference the No. 8 seed was asked how many of Nadal’s 13 French Open finals he watched. “Probably all of them,” Ruud responded. “I think I could probably tell you all the finals and who he has played and who he has beaten, because I watched them all on TV. It’s gonna be amazing to be there myself when you have seen players like…start with Puerta, Federer, Djokovic, Thiem…Wawrinka…all the guys who have played him in finals. So to be a part of that group myself is something I can always brag about after my career.

“Hopefully I will of course give it a shot at the title; (it) would be nicer to be able to brag about the title, as well, after my career.”

After Sunday it will be different, but for one more day Ruud can only brag about practice matches played against the 21-time Grand Slam winner.

“We have trained (on) hard court, indoor, clay court; we have played some practice sets,” Ruud reflected. “And, yeah, he pretty much has always beaten me. There have been some close sets, 7-6, 7-5, but it always goes his favor. But it’s because we are playing in the academy and I want to be nice to him. You know, when you are the guest you need to be a nice guest…. No, I’m just kidding.”

Sunday, though, will be no joke.

“To play Rafa in a Roland Garros final is probably the greatest challenge there is in this sport,” Ruud concluded. “He’s 13-0 in the finals, so (it) just shows that it might sound like an impossible task. But of course I will give it a shot like the other 13 people before me have done. It’s obviously going to be tough. We all know what a great champion he is and how well he plays in the biggest moments and the biggest matches.

“I’m just going to try to enjoy it. I will be the underdog. I will try to tonight and tomorrow night dream about great winners and unbelievable rallies, because that’s what it’s going to take if I want to have any chance. I will need to play my best tennis ever.

“But I still have to believe that I can do it.”

Belief. He may have learned that at the Rafael Nadal Academy, too.

Ricky contributes to 10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @Dimonator.