Three Russians in Australian Open quarterfinals: Renascence of Russia’s men’s tennis

Almost like at the time of Safin and Kafelnikov

Three Russians in Australian Open quarterfinals: Renascence of Russia’s men’s tennis
Photo: ausopen.com

Australian Open is coming to an end, and Russian fans have a reason to watch the competition — two strongest representatives of our country — Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev who became world stars last year — were going to play in the quarterfinals on 17 February. As pitiful as it might be to lose one of them, the Russian quarterfinal guaranteed that two Russians at once would be in the tournament’s semi-final. Since the main sensation of this year’s Australian Open — 27-year-old Aslan Karatsev who began the tournament as no-name but ended up setting a record of a Grand Slam novice by reaching a semi-final — keeps fussing in the draw. The situation resembles the late 90s and early 2000s when Russian tennis was at the top, while Safin and Kafelnikov were considered as permanent favourites of ATP tournaments. Russian tennis has been really rising since last year, and we saw first-hand Medvedev and Rublev become successful, while 2021 has brought us another name — Karatsev. Realnoe Vremya talks about the ascent of the Russian triple and strong points of each of them.

Aslan Karatsev: how to get to a semi-final in debut Slam at 27

Born in Vladikavkaz, Aslan Karatsev took up playing tennis in Israel where he had moved with his family for some time but continued the formation of the tennis player in his native land, in Tambov.

At the onset of his journey, Aslan was considered promising and at the age of 20 received a wild card in a tournament in Saint Petersburg when he lost to Mikhail Yuzhny in the first round. Karatsev also lost at the Summer Universiade in 2015 where he became a two-time medallist — he won a silver in the singles and a bronze in the mixed doubles. After that, he disappeared from the radar of the audience for several years and played in middling and unknown tournaments. Before 2021.

Australian Open kicked off for Aslan very well. He reached the main Slam draw for the first one in his career, and this tournament can already be considered as his asset. But then what is generally called sensations happened. Aslan began to win match after match and already reached a semi-final making a unique achievement — he became the first tennis player who has gone too far in a debut Grand Slam tournament.

If Karatsev’s opponents in the first two rounds were the most serious, in the third round, he defeated the world’s No.9 racket Diego Schwartzman, moreover, he did this in three sets — 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Then he won Canada’s Auger-Aliassime and Gregor Dimitrov. Both opponents are in the world’s top 20, this is why we can’t say Karatsev was lucky.

If Karatsev’s opponents in the first two rounds were the most serious, in the third round, he defeated the world’s No.9 racket Diego Schwartzman, moreover, he did this in three sets — 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Then he won Canada’s Auger-Aliassime and Gregor Dimitrov. Video screenshot: ausopen.com

It is hard to understand the secret of Karatsev’s success because he has never set the Thames on fire during his career and has not been close even to the rating’s top 100. Perhaps, the change of his coach is the answer. Since 2019, Karatsev has been training in Minsk, while Yegor Yatsyuk is his mentor. Aslan began to gain speed under his, while an Australian Open semi-final became the apogee.

And the most surprising thing is that Karatsev doesn’t play in defence. On the contrary, Aslan plays aggressively in attack even against renowned opponents. For instance, in the match against Schwartzman, Karatsev has 50 winners versus the rival’s 5. At the same time, Schwartzman had 12 unforced errors, while the Russian player did 38, which is too much. This shows that Aslan’s play style is only attacking because mistakes appear as a result of attacks. We should also note the high percentage of first serves — 72% — and the percentage of winning balls after the first service, namely, 70%.

That’s to say, Karatsev bets on aggression from the very beginning of the rally and tries to corner his opponent with the lowest number of hits, hence the victories and unforced errors. The match with Schwartzman was an example because he is Karatsev’s top seeded opponent. However, in the semi-final, an athlete of the high calibre would oppose him — great and terrible Novak Djokovic. This will be a real challenge because the Serbian athlete is famous for his love for playing in counter-attacks precisely against aggressive rivals, and Karatsev’s team would have to think well about what to offer the legend.

The case of Aslan Karatsev is like a film. The guy tries to reach the summit throughout his career, and here it is, the happy end. Even if he loses the semi-final, the Russian will make history. The question is what’s next. Is it a one-time success or the beginning of the journey of the would-be world star? The situation is very paradoxical because nobody forecasted Karatsev would have such a result. It is also hard to understand if he won’t lose his shape in the future. In any case, we will be glad about the appearance of another strong Russian tennis player who will fight with the elite of the world tennis stage.

Andrey Rublev: stability and titles

The situation with Andrey Rublev is much simpler. He was a star as a junior player and had a long transition into seniors. Since the appearance in senior tournaments, Rublev showed he is ready to fight against the most famous opponents, and losses didn’t look so offensive because Andrey is very young. But the situation didn’t change much with time. Rublev didn’t get to further rounds in tournaments being defeated by not the most notable rivals, and it was a matter of psychology. Because victories inspire confidence, and if you were a star but can’t win weaker though experienced players now, you should look for answers in your head, the mastery hasn’t disappeared.

This year Andrey will turn 24 and he seems to be on the way of solving this problem. 2020 became a breakthrough year from a perspective of the matches and titles he won. Five tournaments he won in 2020 became the best result last year and allowed Rublev to cement a seat among the elite of the world’s tennis.

Five tournaments he won in 2020 became the best result last year and allowed Rublev to cement a seat among the elite of the world’s tennis. Video screenshot: ausopen.com

Andrey gained confidence and solved his main problem — the game with average opponents. Because to win a victory in a tournament, it is necessary to go through a lot of rounds. And when this barrier fell, everybody saw that Rublev everybody had been expecting for years. Fast and aggressive tennis is similar with Aslan Karatsev’s style very much, and the difference between the lads now is that Rublev managed to minimise the number of errors in matches steering his power on the right track. He also focuses on the first serve thanks to which he attacks going forward to the net and scoring important points. The skilled management of the game pace making the rival running from corner to corner turned Andrey into a very interesting player who can achieve summits.

As for Australian Open, it is being very simple for Andrey. He hasn’t lost a set to his rivals in all the matches and is confidently moving towards the semi-final of the tournament. As for the draw, here Rublev is lucky because the 28th seed Norwegian Casper Ruud has been his strongest opponent. But he couldn’t finish the match with Rublev, this is why Andrey managed to save energy before a quarterfinal where a battle with his best friend Daniil Medvedev awaited him. And judging by the pace Rublev set in this tournament, the chances of beating the compatriot were quite good.

Daniil Medvedev: superstar, potential sub of Nadal and Djokovic

He is another successful Russian tennis player who has been a superstar of world tennis in recent time. He is one of the favourites of any tournament he participates in.

Daniil Medvedev showed off a bit earlier than his friend Rublev, anyway he had to experience an analogous stage in career or, more precisely, a transition from juniors into seniors. His play style that’s different from the style of the two above-mentioned players helped Daniil to adapt faster. This makes him look like Novak Djokovic. A slow game allows Medvedev to exhaust rivals and win matches. He doesn’t wallop with his first serve and doesn’t shower with attacks but acts looking at the rival. If he allows one to play, one can be a bit riskier, and if Daniil is tried to be made rush from corner to corner, one can be ready for the Russian’s strong defence.

Yes, like many tennis players, Medvedev had a complex when playing with weaker players, but now he is stably winning top 10 players and easily defeats less famous rivals. The victory in the ATP’s final tournament proved it and fixed Daniil’s set in the elite.

It is already rumoured who would substitute Nadal, Djokovic and Federer. And precisely the Russian has recently been first on the list of potential kings of the men’s tennis. Young German Zverev is also on the list, but Medvedev has victories over great players and big wins under his belt. No, he hasn’t won Slam tournaments, but there is no doubt the first victory will be won soon. Perhaps, in this tournament.

Russia is becoming one of the leading tennis powers. We have both superstars and lower-ranking players who can surprise the public, Karatsev is evidence of it. Stability everybody has been waiting for so much joined the named players, and now this stability is bringing dividends.

Australian Open quarterfinals have never had so many Russians, even during the era of Kafelnikov, Safin and Davydenko with Yuzhny. Most importantly, Medvedev and Rublev, including Karatsev are young (27 years is a great age for a successful career), and they have potential for growth. And if they are ready to fight with the world’s best players as equals now, we can safely assume that Russians will set trends of world tennis in the next years.

By Igor Belonogov