Aslan Karatsev and his shocking tun to the 2021 Australian Open semifinals is undoubtedly one of the sport’s most surprising story lines in recent years. After coming through qualifying and recording impressive wins over the likes of Diego Schwartzman, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Grigor Dimitrov, he has guaranteed a new career-high ranking of at least #42. Ahead of his semifinal with Novak Djokovic, let’s give a more detailed overview of the Russian’s career.
The Career of Aslan Karatsev
Early Years and Tennis Development
Karatsev was born in Vladikavkaz, Russia, and his tennis background is different from many players’ on the tour. Whereas it is not uncommon for players to leave their native country in order to develop their tennis at an established academy, or to go through the U.S. college system to gain a degree whilst playing college tennis to develop their game, Karatsev went a different route and has trained in many countries. His family relocated to Israel when he was three years old, and he trained there until age 12. He then moved back to Russia, before moving to Halle, Barcelona, and finally Minsk. Karatsev has constantly searched for the right coaching setup to get the best out of his career. He has seemingly finally found the best coach for him in Yahor Yatsyk, the Belorussian who Karatsev credits for his unbelievable form.
A Mainstay of the Futures and Challenger Tour
Although perhaps not a well known name to the casual tennis fan, to those who follow the ATP Challenger Tour–where tournaments often contain highly competitive and difficult draws for players–Karatsev is a well established player. The Russian has only played 18 ATP Tour matches on the main tour. His first appearance came courtesy of a wild card at the 2013 St. Petersburg Open. For the best part of a decade, Karatsev has been battling it out on the Futures and Challenger Tours.
On the Futures tour, Karatsev quickly found success, winning three singles titles in 2013. His game showed development, and the following year he reached his first Challenger Tour final. Karatsev won his first Challenger Tour title in 2015. However, he was unable to kick on from this success, despite also winning his first ATP Tour match that year against fellow Russian Mikhail Youzhny at the Kremlin Cup.
Despite winning three Futures titles at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, Karatsev was unable to win any titles in 2019. Going into 2020, there was no reason to suggest that Karatsev would have the best year of his career to date and begin a run of form that would see him reach his first Grand Slam semifinal.
A Good Start to 2020 and Post-Lockdown Surge
The year started well for the Russian, as he reached his first Challenger Tour final since 2016 in Bangkok. He lost that final to Attila Balazs, who had reached an ATP final in Umag in 2019. However, due to COVID, there was no chance for Karatsev to build on this strong start to the season.
When tennis finally returned, Karatsev began the run of form that has seen him produce his best tennis of his career, and finally break through at Grand Slam level. In late August, Karatsev reached the final of the Prague Challenger 1. In the final, he played one of the biggest matches of his career against Stan Wawrinka. Despite falling 6-7 4-6, Karatsev proved to everyone that he was a force to be reckoned with by giving the Swiss a real challenge.
The following week, at the second Prague Challenger event, Karatsev won his first Challenger event in over five years. The following week he won another Challenger event, in Ostrava. Over the course of three weeks, Karatsev produced the best tennis of his career. This undoubtedly gave him the confidence to achieve the run we are seeing in Melbourne.
2021 Australian Open and the Lessons from Karatsev’s Success
Karatsev qualified for his first career Grand Slam event at the 2021 Australian Open. In his run to the semifinals, he recorded his first Top 10 win, defeating Diego Schwartzman in straight sets in the third round, hitting over fifty winners in the match. He came back from two sets to love down against Felix Auger Aliassime in his next match, and won his quarterfinal match after losing the first set to Grigor Dimitrov. In many ways, his path through the tournament sums up one of the main characteristics of his career to date: persistence. He is undoubtedly the massive underdog against Djokovic, but there is no pressure on the Russian. He can go out onto the court and swing freely. Whatever happens there, we can all learn lessons from Karatsev’s success.
Firstly, the ATP Challenger Tour deserves more exposure and coverage. There are many players like Karatsev who grind it out every single week to make a living. The standard on the Challenger Tour is high, and the players competing deserve more exposure and coverage. Secondly, it continues to show that more investment needs to be made in the lower levels of the sport to ensure that players like Aslan Karatsev can continue to break through. The players on the Challenger Tour can earn a decent and reasonable living whilst they try to become mainstays on the main tour.
We should all pay more attention to the “lower” tours. If we better know who these players are, the next Aslan Karatsev won’t take us by such surprise.
Main Photo from Getty.