ATP Finals 2021: Debutant Casper Ruud into semis with third-set tie-break win over Andrey Rublev
Ruud will face Daniil Medvedev in semi; Novak Djokovic to face Alexander Zverev
And so to the last day of round-robin competition at the new venue for the Nitto ATP Finals in Turin, and there remained a lot on the line.
World No1 Novak Djokovic had assured himself of the top spot in the Green Group after two rounds with straight-sets wins over the two men who would compete for the second place on Friday afternoon: No5 seed Andrey Rublev and No8 seed Casper Ruud.
And it was that simple: the winner of this fifth match between the 24-year-old Russian and the 22-year-old Norwegian would take his place in the semi-finals.
On paper, Rublev had the edge: He had won all four previous matches—though one was by retirement at the Australian Open. Rublev went on to win their Monte-Carlo meeting in May, on Ruud’s favourite clay surface, but the young Norwegian had gone on since then to prove his quality not just on the red stuff but on hard courts too.
Since that Monte-Carlo semi run as No27 in the ranks, Ruud reached the semis at the Madrid Masters, too, with a win over Stefanos Tsitsipas, and won the first of five titles in Geneva.
Twelve straight clay match-wins came in July and preluded two hard-court Masters quarters followed by the San Diego title. By season’s end, Ruud was 24-9 on hard courts, and a prolific match-winner, up to 54 in Turin. But he had still to beat a top-10 player on hard courts.
Rublev was the one to win five titles in 2020, but his only one during 2021 was in Rotterdam, at the start of the season—though appropriately, of course, that was on indoor hard courts. But he had reached two Masters finals for the first time, at Monte-Carlo and on the hot, hard courts of Cincinnati. There were also semis in Dubai, Miami, and San Diego, to notch up 33 hard-court wins in 2021. Not that he came into Turin in great form: two wins in four tournaments.
However, Rublev got off to a confident start, as these men’s two big forehands went shot for shot in big exchanges. But it would be the backhand wing that earned two break chances in the third game, and a sliced reply from Ruud found the net to concede an early break, 1-2.
Rublev continued to open up the court with his searing off-forehand cross-court plays and then backhand winners down the line. He was playing the more aggressive tennis and drawing errors as a result. Another break in the bag, and the Russian held for 5-1.
He even had another chance to break, with Ruud looking less energised than he had in beating Cameron Norrie, but then the Norwegian had lost the first set against the Briton, 6-1, and then come back to win it.
Now, he fended off two more break points for a difficult hold, 2-5, but Rublev had no trouble serving out the set, 6-2.
Ruud needed to find more pace and variety to break up the groove that the Russian had established. Rublev’s serve and angled pace continued to cause problems, and he broke in the third game, with Ruud’s serve uncharacteristically letting him down.
But a couple of big forehand winners from the Norwegian took the Russian to deuce, who then made two pressured errors for the break back: 2-2.
This felt like a critical juncture in the match, with Ruud failing to convert a break chance, then forced to save two break points himself. Both were feeling the tension.
Ruud, though, applied the thumb screws with his easiest hold of the set to leave Rublev serving to save the set, but they remained all square, 5-5. It was the last chance for one to break to avoid the tie-break, and looked like it might be Ruud at 0-30 down, with Rublev hustling in defence to fire off that dangerous forehand. But four straight points from Ruud did the job.
It was now up to Rublev to take it to the tie-break? The crowd clearly wanted more, and cheered Ruud for a pitch-perfect touch volley winner and then a return winner that earned three break—and set—points. He converted the second, 7-5, to take them to a make-or-break final set.
Rublev needed to rein in his emotions, calm the nerves, and start to take control again. The Russian’s problem, though, was that Ruud had now found better range and tactics, and with that confidence, his serve level was rising, too. However, Rublev also seemed to have regathered, and threw down two love holds. The Russian then earned two break chances in the fifth game, converting for a 3-2 lead.
Still Ruud would not back off, and hammered his formidable forehand to huge effect to break straight back. And so it went, with Rublev fending off deuce, 5-5, and then Ruud double faulting to bring up break point. He got his forehand into play to hold again, and after two and a quarter hours, it would all come down to a tie-break.
Both now brought their best to the table, with Ruud getting the first point against serve, 4-2. Rublev benefitted from a killer net cord to pull it back, but Ruud hammered a smash to earn another chance, this time on match point. A 14th Rublev ace demolished it, but now the ball was in the Norwegian’s hands, and he too found a 14th ace for victory: 7-6(5).
The stats spoke of how tight the contest had been: Aside from identical aces, each had made three double faults, each had won 14 points from 18 net forays, each had got 66 percent of serves into play.
It was, then, decided by the smallest of margins: fractionally more winners and fractionally fewer errors from the young Norwegian, who became the first from his country to reach the semis of the ATP Finals.
There he will meet defending champion Daniil Medvedev, who needed two and a half hours and three sets to beat Jannik Sinner last night for a clean sweep of the Red Group. He and Ruud have met twice, both times won by the Russian.
In the last session, Djokovic will also aim to make it 3-0 in round-robin play when he faces Norrie for the first time. The top seed already knows that his semi-final will be against Alexander Zverev, but there remain 200 ranking points and $173,000 for the winner, even though it is a ‘dead’ match.
Joe Salisbury and Rajeev Ram beat Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah, 7-5, 2-6, 11-9, to top the Red Group with a perfect 3-0 record. It takes them to the semi-finals of the ATP Finals for the second straight year.
The result means that third-seeded Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, the 2019 titlists, finish in second place.
Ram and Salisbury will now face Croatians Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic, who have won nine titles in 2021 and finished at year-end No1. Herbert and Mahut will face Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos in the second semi-final.