Master Nadal takes experience into French Open final against apprentice Ruud

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How time flies. On 3 June 2005, on Court Philippe Chatrier, Rafael Nadal, long black locks a-flowing, celebrated his 19th birthday with a French Open semi-final victory over Roger Federer. Two days later in the final, the Spaniard overcame Mario Puerta to lift the men's singles crown for the first time.

On 3 June, 2022, on the same court, there was another semi-final triumph to adorn the 36th birthday festivities.

But they were rather more muted. Alexander Zverev, Nadal's adversary had retired from the fray after twisting his ankle as the second set reached a tiebreak.

The 25-year-old German and Nadal had been on court for just over three hours.

And Nadal had been lucky to escape. The humid conditions under the closed roof had robbed Nadal of his ability to generate the topspin that makes the ball bounce high after hitting the clay.

Zverev was hitting the ball through the court with far less effort. And the longer the match progressed, the German looked the likelier winner.

Luck

But that was before the twist of fate.

"I think Sascha started the match playing amazing," said Nadal. "I know how much it means to him to win his first Grand Slam. We are colleagues, we have practiced together a lot of times. And to see a colleague like this, even if it's a dream for me to be in the final of Roland Garros, of course this is not the way that I want it to be. I feel very sorry for him."

As he broaches his 14th French Open final, there is an air of the swan song about the 2022 men's singles showdown.

There was a time when Nadal was an elemental force in the afternoon or early evening heat of Paris in late May or early June. The effort brought victories.

Effort

But a retractable cenre court roof, broadcasters' demands for star names in night sessions and of course, age, have combined to dissolve the seeming omnipotence. The triumphs still come but they appear to be increasingly exhausting.

The magician from Menacor goes into the final desperately needing one last trick to burnish his legend.

Rain is forecast for Sunday afternoon meaning that the same conditions that bedevilled his game against Zverev will feature during the match against Casper Ruud who will be playing in his first final at a Grand Slam tournament.

The 23-year-old Norwegian has reached the final in a quiet, unruffled manner.

He gained a legion of admirers for his behaviour during the rampant partisanship of the centre court crowd willing the local hero Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on to one last exploit before his retirement.

Skill

Ruud's post match victory speech on the court was a vignette in poise and politeness. It was actually rather sweet.

"I didn't like you when I was growing up because you beat Rafa at the Australian Open in 2008 and Rafa was my hero," Ruud said unabashed.

"But since I've been on the tour, you've been an inspiration to me and so many of the other young players. We'll miss you."

And with that he left them to the tributes for Tsonga.

Progress

In his three previous visits to Paris, Ruud has been stopped in the third round by Roger Federer in 2019 and Dominic Thiem in 2020. Last year Alejandro Davidovich Fokina edged him in five sets.

It took Ruud five sets to see off the 32nd seed Lorenzo Sonego in this year's third round.

And when he beat the 12th seed Hubert Hurkacz, Ruud became the first Norwegian man to reach the last eight at a Grand Slam tournament.

Some saucy behaviour was reported in the locker rooms after the four-set last eight victory over fellow Scandinavian Holger Rune to belie the Mr Nice Guy image.

He will certainly need that edge as he takes on what he describes as the biggest challenge in clay court tennis.

"He's 13-0 in the final here," said Ruud. "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, and I will try to 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."

Fight

And Nadal is aware he is facing a fight. "He has a great character. He's a great guy, and he has a great family," said the Spaniard. "I respect a lot him. He did a lot of great things the last couple of years. He's the number seven in the world. He's in the final and it's not a surprise."

Since his mid teens, Ruud has been sponsored by the Norway based financial services group Arctic. And he will need his nerves to be ice cold.

As one of the fully paid-up members of the Nadal fan club and a student of Nadal's academy in Mallorca, for their first meeting on the circuit he will have to put aside the hero worship to try and beat his idol.

"We have played some practice sets but he always pretty much has always beaten me," said Ruud.

"There's been some close sets, 7-6, 7-5, but it always goes his favour. But it's because we are playing in the academy and I want to be nice to him and give him ... you know, when you are the guest you need to be a nice guest."

A nice touch. Ruud will need a lot of them on Sunday afternoon.

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