AO 23 Australian Open

Casper Ruud: Not haunted, but definitely hunted

Casper Ruud’s second-round loss to Jenson Brooksby at the Australian Open is not — and should not be viewed as — a verdict on the Norwegian, seeded second in Melbourne and ranked in the top three.

Anyone can lose one match on a given day. Brooksby is evidently and copiously talented. He put the pieces of his game together, watched Ruud break them apart, and then reassembled his winning strokes in the fourth set of a very impressive victory. Tip the cap to Brooksby. That’s sports.

However, while this match is no verdict on Ruud — no one needs to be the first person to yell “FRAUD! LIGHTWEIGHT! OVERRATED!”, as though being first somehow counts for something more — we can certainly say that the result creates a very intriguing and important conversation for the rest of 2023.

Will Casper Ruud stand up to the pressure, the expectations, the scrutiny, everything that comes with being a high-ranked target on tour?

Being No. 2 or No. 3, and being a two-time major finalist, as Ruud was in 2022, is a lot different from being No. 9 and carving out a Tommy Robredo-like career with some major quarters and plenty of R-16s on the resume. One position invites a lot more attention from fans and media, one position gains a lot more notice in the locker room and among the coaches and insiders who follow the sport.

Breathing the thin air which accompanies a rise to the mountaintop in tennis requires special mental lungs, an ability to wear the target on one’s back and relish the challenge. It’s notable that Ruud — when fending off match points and placed in the shoes of an underdog with nothing to lose — played his best tennis of the match. In the other contexts created during this four-setter, he wasn’t nearly as liberated, and he was never in charge. Ruud can’t rely on having an underdog mentality and using it to his advantage. Being a top-three-ranked player requires an Alpha Male presence and a natural ability to own the stage and feel comfortable in that role.

Casper Ruud had an enduringly great 2022 season. It’s not as though he did well in only one part of the year. He made the Miami final, the Roland Garros final, and the U.S. Open final. He was a man for all seasons in tennis terms. This wasn’t just a brief, flickering flame which died right after it came into being. Ruud carried his form and his confidence through several months.

However, one thing Ruud hadn’t yet done with his newly lofty ranking and increased global stature was enter a new tennis season as a target for everyone on tour.

That was new. That was unprecedented. The tour had a whole offseason to study Ruud and map out a plan. Brooksby solved the puzzle early in this Australian Open.

Will Casper Ruud handle the heat as a marked man in men’s tennis this year?

The loss to Brooksby didn’t answer that question. It created and elevated it. Check back in June to see where everything stands.

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