As Frances Tiafoe basked in the glory of his quarter-final upset of Rafael Nadal on Monday night, he was reminded that at some point soon the big three would retire, with more opportunities to come.
He responded with a cynical smile, not missing a beat: “Been saying that for how many years now?” But what is clear is that a new men’s grand slam champion will be crowned at the US Open, and this tournament will provide another glimpse into the future of men’s tennis.
In the first match since Carlos Alcaraz dismissed the final former champion, Marin Cilic, at 2.24am day morning, the 23-year-old Casper Ruud made the first statement of intent as he took apart the 13th seed, Matteo Berrettini, winning 6- 1, 6-4, 7-6 (4) to reach the semi-final of the US Open for the first time.
Ruud, the fifth seed, will face either Nick Kyrgios or Karen Khachanov next in his second grand slam semi-final of the year after finishing runner-up at the French Open.
Despite boasting more experience at this stage of a grand slam tournament than all other men left in the draw, having reached three previous semi-finals, Berrettini was dire from the beginning, struggling to land backhands and haemorrhaging unforced errors from all parts of his game .
Less obvious, though, was how Ruud helped those errors along with his own industry. He continually locked Berrettini in his backhand corner with his heavy, vicious inside-out forehand, defended extremely well and made a high number of returns along with a high first-serve percentage. “That was a better start than I’ve ever had before in a match,” said Ruud. “Everything was going my way, I was hitting the spots that I needed to.”
By the time Ruud led 6-1, 5-1, he had struck just two unforced errors in the entire match. But as his nerves provoked a few rare mistakes Berrettini slowly worked his way into the match. In the third set Berrettini led 5-2 and held two set points a game later, but he simply did not have enough confidence in the tight moments.
While Ruud is humble, understated and pleasant, he has had plenty of detractors since his emergence for his early specialization on clay courts and the way he initially built his top 10 ranking by tearing through clay court ATP 250 events last year, leading some to brand him has “vulture”. But the Norwegian kept his head down and focused on improving, eking out more from his first serve and backhand. The results have been emphatic – Ruud has won 13 of his past 16 matches on hard courts, having also reached a Masters 1000 final in Miami, a semi-final in Montreal and the semis of the ATP finals last year.
Incredibly, he could now stand a win away from becoming the ATP’s new No 1. Nadal is currently top of the live ATP rankings after Daniil Medvedev’s defeat, but should Ruud or Alcaraz reach the final, either of them would become the world No 1. If they both reach the final, the tournament winner would also take the top ranking.
“I don’t want to think too much about it, honestly,” said Ruud. “It’s of course something that all young players dream about. If I’m in a position to do it, let’s see if I can accomplish it.”