By Giri Nathan
Well, this week has brought some massive life changes for a certain mild-mannered male tennis player who enjoys off-white hues and Anna Wintour’s companionship: That’s right, Casper Ruud is the new world No. 2. What an odds-defying run at the US Open from the 23-year-old Norwegian, who’s also earned a worthy nickname from our own Caitlin Thompson: the Oatmeal Stallion.
With most eyes fixed on 19-year-old world-destroyer and eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz, Ruud’s résumé might have escaped the notice of casual viewers, who saw him as just one last obstacle to be surmounted. But the guy won’t wind up a random trivia answer in Alcaraz’s wake. This year Ruud bloomed. If you asked his antagonists (like Nick Kyrgios), they’d say he was a “vulture” of smaller events, padding his ranking with easy wins. And while he still may not have a tour title above the 250 level, Ruud made two major finals this season, more than any of the young guns can claim. And unlike Roland-Garros, where he had to play Rafa in his own living room, this time Ruud could taste the possibility of victory: “It was more fun for me today. I didn’t need to play the biggest idol of my life on the biggest match of my life. It was sort of easier for me to believe that I could win.” Ruud had such a successful year, on both his preferred clay and acquired-taste hard courts, that an Open win would’ve put him at the No. 1 slot instead of Alcaraz. (You are free to debate the validity of those rankings right now, after a points-less Wimbledon, but these are the facts.)
Another eyebrow raiser: Ruud’s trips to two major finals curiously did not involve any wins over top 10 players. Whether he can back up his ranking and hang with his toughest colleagues—Novak Djokovic back from self-imposed absence, an in-form Daniil Medvedev, a surgically repaired Sascha Zverev—is a question to be answered next season. I remain gently skeptical. But he does have a singular weapon, which is his tremendous topspin. Heading into the Open final, Ruud’s forehands at the tournament averaged 3,251 revolutions per minute, well above the tournament average 2,583, and right up in the Nadal stratosphere. I like how the writer Alex Gruskin framed Casper Ruud’s game to me once: what it’d look like if a mortal tried to play like Rafa. Ruud may lack the brazen athleticism and shotmaking creativity of his idol, but he’s speedy around the court, he’s a consistent ball-striker with huge margins, and he’s begun to hold his own against the burlier hitters on quicker surfaces.
The Open final could’ve very easily tipped in his direction. Ruud took the second set and had two set points in the third, both erased by Alcaraz high jinks at the net that sprung straight from the Spaniard’s head-heart-huevos ethos. The tiebreak got away from Ruud, then Alcaraz served fire through the fourth, and then it was over. And within minutes of what must have been one of the keenest disappointments in his career, Ruud began his runner-up speech—it was technically a runner-up interview, unfortunately—with some clear and poised remarks about 9/11. While there’s no requirement for Scandinavian athletes born on the cusp of this millennium to say anything at all about 9/11 during any public statement after a sporting event, it was nice of him to try, and to pull it off so eloquently. By the time he got to press he’d already found a way to cut through his disappointment: “I’m very proud of being No. 2. In a way it’s a good thing because I can still chase the last spot.” The Casper Ruud US Open run fell just short, but the Casper Ruud rebrand was a triumph nonetheless.
Above: The Oatmeal Stallion where it all began: Racquet House New York, August, 2022. (Heidi Hartwig)