In a winner-takes-all Green Group match, it was Casper Ruud who rose to the task Friday at the Nitto ATP Finals, edging Andrey Rublev 2-6, 7-5, 7-6(5) in a high-quality match to qualify for the semi-finals in Turin.
The 22-year-old bounced back from losing his opening round-robin match against Novak Djokovic by defeating Cameron Norrie to set up a crunch clash against Rublev, with the Russian also holding a 1-1 record after two matches.
“The court is playing very fast and Andrey plays very fast,” Ruud said in his on-court interview. “He rips the ball harder than anyone on the Tour and serves very well on his first serve. We all want to play under control and with initiative, but it is not easy against Rublev because he makes you run all the time and play defensively all the time. I knew I had to fight fire with fire. On the big points I think I played quite smartly.”
With the pressure on, Ruud imposed his aggressive game on Rublev, hitting his powerful groundstrokes with precision and depth as he rallied from a break down in the second and third sets to secure his victory in two hours and 24 minutes.
The World No. 8 has finished second in the Green Group behind Djokovic and will face Daniil Medvedev in the last four on Saturday, while the World No. 1 will play Alexander Zverev.
“I am just enjoying the moment,” Ruud said. “I am looking forward to tomorrow already. It is going to be another tough battle, different kind of player from today, but one of the best in the world and he has proven himself as one of the best over the past two or three years. I have played against him a couple of times and lost both, but I know a little bit about what I am going to face and it is going to be a fun challenge.”
Ruud, who is making his debut at the season finale, fired 34 winners and broke Rublev three times as he rallied back to reduce his ATP Head2Head series deficit to 1-4 against the 24-year-old.
The Norwegian has enjoyed a standout 2021 season, capturing tour-level titles in Geneva, Bastad, Gstaad, Kitzbühel and San Diego. Ruud also reached the semi-finals at ATP Masters 1000 events in Monte Carlo and Madrid and became the first Norwegian to crack the Top 10 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.
In a fast start, Rublev quickly found his rhythm from the baseline and was dominant on serve, not facing a break point in the first set as he won 92 per cent (12/13) of points behind his first delivery. The Russian sealed the opener in 34 minutes when Ruud hit a backhand wide.
In a tighter second set, Ruud provided greater resistance as he began to play far more aggressively, stepping inside the baseline to pin Rublev back. After breaks were exchanged in the middle of the second set, it was Ruud who raised his level at the end of the set, dictating on his forehand to force a decider.
Both players continued to strike the ball with immense power in the third set off the forehand wing. After Rublev broke, Ruud responded immediately to level at 3-3. The World No. 8 then showcased his grit, fending off a break point at 5-5 with a forehand winner as they moved to a tie-break. In a tight tie-break, Ruud held his nerve to seal a massive win.
Rublev was making his second appearance at the season finale, having fallen in the round-robin stage in London last year. Earlier this year, the fifth seed clinched the title in Rotterdam and reached the final at ATP Masters 1000 events in Monte Carlo and Cincinnati.
“It is tough,” Rublev said. “Hopefully I can go through it to get a good lesson, which will give me a huge improvement.
“In the moment I got tight, which is normal,” Rublev said. “Casper played well. He has a great forehand. One of the best on Tour. He dictates with it and hits the ball well. Because I was tight, I was serving too slowly and he returned aggressively on the forehand and I could not do anything.”