Aslan Karatsev - a part of Tennis' Russian Revolution
He has quite simply been the revelation in tennis, certainly in the first quarter of the 2021.
Even up to a month before the Australian season began, people in tennis would have looked at you quizzically if you had asked who Aslan Karatsev was. For the vast majority of his professional tennis career, the 27-year-old Russian has played on the Challenger tour with moderate results.
Before the week of 8 February 2021, he had never been ranked in the top 100 and the most notable name he had faced was Stan Wawrinka – that was in the Prague Challenger in September 2020. Karatsev lost that match but the Swiss suggested that the Russian is someone in waiting.
He then found himself part of the winning Russian team at the ATP Cup, alongside the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev. Medvedev described Karatsev, nominally the team’s captain, as Russia’s “secret weapon”. During the team tournament, Karatsev sat with quietly with his colleagues, and only one question was directed to him during post-match media conferences.
But by then he had already qualified for the Australian Open, and when the tournament began, it became his springboard. The stockily built powerhouse, who looks something like a weightlifter from the lower weight divisions, was upsetting seeds – No 8 Diego Schwartzman, No 20 Felix Auger-Aliassime, No 18 Grigor Dimitrov. It took Novak Djokovic to stop him, but by then Karatsev had become the first man in the Open era to come through qualifying and reach the semis in his debut at the majors.
Born in the Russian city of Vladikavkaz in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, his heritage is Jewish on his mother’s side. His run in Australia and subsequent results has placed him among the ten most notable people to come from the Caucasus, along with a boxer, orchestra conductor, high jumper and wrestler.
“I moved to Israel when I was three years old with my family, and practised in I Yafo, Tel Aviv-Yafo,” Karatsev said of his start in tennis. “I grew up there, practising there until twelve, and then I moved back to Russia (to Taganrog, near Rostov),with my father, and I found a sponsor.
“I was practising there until 18 years old, then I moved to Moscow. I worked with (former pro Dmitry) Tursunov, and he said OK, I will help you to move to Germany to practise in Halle. I was there two years, then I moved to Barcelona, and then the last three years I’m working with Yahor Yatsyk, my coach, in Minks, Belarus. I have a fitness coach also, so we’re working together almost three years.”
There was a time he almost gave it all away. He was suffering with injuries and he was questioning his fortitude. The 2016 season was difficult, but he decided to give things another shot.
He said, “I recovered after injury, and then 2017 started, and I start to play again, and again, I felt the knee, and I said, whoa. I quit again for two and a half months, almost three, and I think this was the most difficult part.”
Yatsyk has been a very important factor in developing Karatsev’s mental game and making him believe that he is capable of playing with the best. In Australia, the fruits of those labours shone through.
Aslan Karatsev is very much part of tennis’ Russian revolution. From never being in the top 100, a week later he was inside the top 50 and a week after that inside the top 30. He teamed with Rublev to win the Doha doubles then claimed his first tour level title in Dubai, beating his friend Rublev en route.
“I play aggressive, try to play a more aggressive style, like going for big serves, and to work the point as short as I can, not so long points,” Karatsev said. “All this maybe happens now and yes, it’s impressed, but I was working a lot. It’s like you never know when it happens. It just happened.”
WORDS BY CRAIG GABRIEL