Aslan Karatsev was described by his ATP Cup teammates as Russia’s secret weapon and there was certainly a feeling after his run through the qualifying that he could make an impact at the Australian Open. Particularly after an impressive season on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2020, during which he reached the final at four Challengers, winning the title in Prague and Ostrava, and reached a career-high ranking of world #111.
But there was still little indication as to just how seismic his impact was going to be. He made a fine start to his campaign at Melbourne Park, beating Gianluca Mager and Egor Gerasimov in convincing fashion to reach the third round. In fact, he dropped just one game in thrashing the Belarusian Gerasimov, making light of the 35 places that separated them heading into the match. But Karatsev was only just getting started.
In the third round, he found himself up against eighth seed Diego Schwartzman, who was bidding to return to the fourth round in Melbourne for the second year in succession. Unsurprisingly, the Argentine went into the match as the heavy favourite, but his ambitions of reaching the second week at the Australian Open were ended in less than two hours as Karatsev stormed to a 6-3 6-3 6-3 win, the finest of his career by a distance.
Having already doubled his tally of tour-level wins by reaching the second week, Karatsev’s dream run looked to be coming to an end when he found himself trailing by two sets to love against Felix Auger-Aliassime. But apparently oblivious of his perilous position, or perhaps freed from any doubts because of it, Karatsev began to open his shoulders and dictate terms to the young Canadian. And, almost in an instant, the match turned.
Auger-Aliassime continued to battle valiantly, but he could do nothing in the face of Karatsev’s power and accuracy from the baseline. Fittingly enough, the Russian completed the turnaround with a superb forehand winner, with Auger-Aliassime not even close to running the ball down. That win guaranteed Karatsev 360 ranking points and A$525,000 in prize money, enough to almost double his career-haul. But still the man from Vladikavkaz was not satisfied.
It did appear that he might have to be in the early stages of his quarterfinal-clash with Grigor Dimitrov. The Bulgarian’s slice backhand and excellent court-coverage were clearly frustrating Karatsev, who also appeared to be feeling the weight of his fourth-round exertions. Having won two of the first three games, he proceeded to lose the next six. Dimitrov pressed hard for the break early in the second, but instead it was Karatsev who struck first.
Dimitrov fought his way straight back to parity, but his body then faltered. Complaining of pelvic spasms that had been bothering him for two days, Dimitrov’s movement became laboured in the extreme. The Bulgarian even elected to remain standing during a changeover, presumably out of fear that his muscles would seize further if he sat down. To his credit, Dimitrov saw the match through to the end, but by the time Karatsev struck the final blow, it had long since ceased to be a contest.
Karatsev will hope that there is more glory to come for him in Melbourne, but even were he to fail to win a game in the semifinals, his achievement would scarcely be less remarkable. Never before in the Open Era has a man reached the semifinals on his Grand Slam debut and it is a testament to the Russian’s mental composure, and his quality, that he has looked so assured in his progress to the last four.
Waiting for him there will be either Novak Djokovic or Alexander Zverev and, as he has been so often this fortnight, he will be the underdog. But it is apparent that that is a role he is more than happy to play and one imagines that neither the Serbian nor the German will be entirely keen to try to tame the power of Karatsev.
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