A tournament can’t ask for more than to see its two top seeds reach the finals. That seemed a viable scenario when semifinal day at the San Diego Open got underway this Saturday afternoon, as a pair of forceful baseliners, first-seeded Andrey Rublev and second-seeded Casper Ruud, were strong favorites.

But only Ruud advanced. In the first semi, in a match three minutes shy of the two-hour mark, Rublev was upset by an eclectic attack from left-hander Cameron Norrie, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. Semifinal number two also went three sets, Ruud taking nearly two-and-a-half hours to squeak past an inspired Grigor Dimitrov, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

Each match had many moments of quality shot-making and high drama. Per usual, Rublev commenced business in high gear, his flat, deep groundstrokes instantly rocking Norrie on his heels. This was similar to how Rublev had dictated play in their only previous meeting, a 6-2, 6-1 rout last year in St. Petersburg. When Rublev is in form this way—blistering forehands and backhands from and to all corners—he is as oppressive as anyone in contemporary tennis. Rublev won the first six points of the match and was in control for virtually all of the first set, serving it out at 5-3. And when Rublev held three break points at 1-all in the second, the world No. 5 appeared on the way to reaching his fifth final of the year.

As you might expect from a left-hander, Norrie’s game lacks Rublev’s linear precision. To make a go in this match, Norrie needed to pry his way into points—an angled low backhand here, a slashed forehand there, a few adroit moves forward, and most of all, versus someone as powerful as Rublev, plenty of sharp and varied serving. Slowly, each of these parts and pieces began to come together for Norrie just when he needed them most. “I managed to weather the storm at the start of the second,” said Norrie. Disrupting Rublev ever-so-nimbly, Norrie held serve at 1-all, broke for 3-1 and continued to tally up points and games.

Per the see-saw-like nature of tennis, Rublev grew frustrated, at times seemingly looking offended by Norrie’s array of angles and spins, a brew that hardly seemed logical but proved repeatedly effective. After winning the second set, 6-3, Norrie broke in the third at 1-all, capturing that game in sublime fashion: fielding a powerful Rublev down-the-line backhand passing shot and clipping off that lefty classic, an angled crosscourt backhand volley.

From there on, Rublev’s only answer was to try and hit harder. But Norrie was too in the groove. He managed his serve games exquisitely, at 4-3 holding at 15, at 5-4, 40-15 terminating a nine-ball rally with a crisp down-the-line forehand. “I’m coming through in the big moments,” said Norrie, who this year has reached finals on grass, clay and hard courts (his one career title coming on the hard courts of Los Cabos).


The No. 10-ranked Ruud is now a win away from becoming the first man to five ATP titles this year.

The No. 10-ranked Ruud is now a win away from becoming the first man to five ATP titles this year.

While Norrie-Rublev was marked by a significant shift in momentum, Ruud-Dimitrov teetered back-and-forth all match long. Early on, Dimitrov came out blazing, showcasing a blistering array to go up 2-0, 40-15. Just like Rublev, the favored Ruud grappled with the mix of tightness and a creative opponent. But Ruud fought back, aided by an ability to peck away at Dimitrov’s forehand. To Dimitrov’s credit, after losing the first set, he dug in valiantly in the second. Ruud served at 2-1, 30-love, but Dimitrov scampered successfully through enough rallies to get back on serve and then capture Ruud’s at 4-5 to level the match.

The third opened with a tennis rarity: four straight service breaks. It was coming down to a battle between Dimitrov’s wide toolbox and the 22-year-old Ruud’s twin set of assets, the focus and power of youth. This was similar to the conflict between Norrie and Rublev. But while Norrie stared right into the fire, Dimitrov blinked. Dimitrov served in the third set at 3-all, 30-love. Point after point, the 30-year-old Bulgarian had played the kind of tactically eclectic tennis that at its best makes him quite compelling. At that late stage, he came to net and struck a sharp volley, eliciting a defensive lob—a shot Dimitrov momentarily lost in the lights and hit long. From there, Ruud won the next seven points to go up 5-3 and, two games later, end the match when Dimitrov netted a backhand.

It was a shame to see such a high-quality match end so swiftly. “I just tried to hang in there,” said Ruud. “It was tough, but I was able to win the most important points of the match.”

Tomorrow will mark the first time Ruud and Norrie play one another. “It's always exciting when you play someone for the first time,” said Ruud. As was the case in both matches today, the style contrast will be vivid.