Aslan the lion
Aslan Karatsev, a name largely unknown to the tennis community until a few weeks ago, is enjoying a stunning season. The 27-year-old Russian qualified for the first Grand Slam tournament of his career in Melbourne, before beating the likes of Diego Schwartzman, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Grigor Dimitrov during an incredible run to the semifinals. In the last four, eventual champion and world #1 Novak Djokovic finally put an end to Karatsev’s winning streak at eight.
To fully appreciate the magnitude of that run, it is important to consider Karatsev’s career trajectory up to that point. Prior to his arrival in Australia, the Russian had chalked up just three — yes, three — ATP Tour match wins in his entire 10-year professional career. He had never even won a qualifying match at ATP Masters 1000 level, let alone feature in the main draw. He was at best a journeyman professional, at worst a tennis nobody.
On the back of his performances at Melbourne Park, Karatsev’s ranking shot up in to the top 50 for the first time. This has allowed him to enter more high-level tournaments. In Doha last week, he won his first round match at a canter before losing in three sets to US Open champion Dominic Thiem.
Next stop, Dubai. After receiving a late wildcard, the Russian has won five successive matches. His victims include top-50 regulars Dan Evans and Lorenzo Sonego, and exciting Italian teenager Jannik Sinner. After overcoming the daunting obstacle of countryman Andrey Rublev in the semifinals, Karatsev is preparing to play his first final at ATP level on Saturday.
Watching Karatsev’s match against Rublev this morning, I was so impressed with the level of tennis he produced. His strength is clearly the power of his groundstrokes. Off both wings he was bludgeoning the ball with brutal ferocity, dragging Rublev — one of the most feared baseliners in the game — from side to side and dominating from the back of the court. He smashed 41 winners compared to Rublev’s 21. Rublev did not play a bad match at all — coughing up just 11 unforced errors compared to his opponent’s 38 — but he simply could not live with his compatriot’s power and accuracy.
But while Karatsev’s weight of shot is his primary attribute, he has finesse and flair to complement the brawn. He moves deceptively well for a man more than 6ft tall, serves consistently above 200kph and appears comfortable in the forecourt. In truth, the 6–2, 4–6, 6–4 scoreline flattered Rublev. The world #8, who was on a record-breaking streak of 23 consecutive ATP 500-level victories, was hanging on to Karatsev’s coattails the entire match. He faced 16 break points and only created four of his own. It was a decidedly one-sided contest.
Armed with such weaponry, I cannot believe it has taken so long for Karatsev to make his mark on the tour. There have been injuries, most notably from 2017–2019 when he did not play a single tour-level match. But it is nevertheless amazing that he had only won three matches prior to this year. I guess it speaks volumes for the level of tennis in the lower-reaches of the game that someone of Karatsev’s talent was unable to make the step up.
I must confess, I did not expect Karatsev to back up his Melbourne performances in such an eye-catching fashion. Over the years, the Australian Open has played host to a number of surprising runs. In 2008, the unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal on his way to the final. Marcos Baghdatis achieved a similar result in 2006. But both were young players on the rise who would go on to establish themselves in the top-20 for several years. Karatsev had been hanging around the tour for a decade and still had more limbs than he did match victories.
Indeed, Karatsev is not the only player to be in the midst of a breakthrough week on the ATP Tour. The Russian’s opponent in tomorrow’s final, Lloyd Harris, has recorded landmark wins against Dominic Thiem, Kei Nishikori and Denis Shapovalov en route to his first tour-level final. Whatever the result in Saturday’s showpiece, the 24-year-old South African is guaranteed to improve on his career-high ranking of #72 when the standings are updated on Monday.
Meanwhile in Mexico, Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti continues to make a name for himself. After introducing the tennis world to his considerable talents during the Rome Masters last year, where he beat both Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori on his tour debut, Musetti has come through qualifying at the ATP 500 tournament in Acapulco to claim main-draw victories over Diego Schwartzman, Frances Tiafoe and Grigor Dimitrov. He takes on Greek top seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in a mouthwatering semifinal tonight.
Both Musetti and Harris, however, are young and have been consistently improving for a while. Their progress is much easier to comprehend. Karatsev’s career had been stagnant for years and at 27, I thought his time to make a breakthrough into the highest echelons of the game had been and gone. There have been a couple of signs pointing to an improved level of performance — he reached three successive Challenger finals last summer, winning two — but there was nothing to suggest he would suddenly become a regular winner on the tour. Now, with so much confidence and virtually no points to lose for the rest of the season, I’d be amazed if he doesn’t break into the top-20 in the next few months.
In C.S. Lewis’ epic Chronicles of Narnia series, Aslan is said to represent Jesus Christ. The lion is mocked, beaten and killed before rising again to reclaim his title of King of the Wood. Aslan Karatsev is doing a similar resurrection job with his tennis career.