While the first signs of his incoming big breakthrough came playing clay-court Challengers in Czechia after the tour restarted, Aslan Karatsev has found success at ATP-level have come almost exclusively on hard courts. After a poor patch of play in the grass-court season and the latter half of the clay-court one, can the Russian recapture the magic and go on to be a threat to win big events again? His first-round performance to beat Tommy Paul at the Olympics tells us he just might.
Karatsev went 15-1 in Prague and Ostrava last year to jump 140 ranking places in three weeks. It allowed him to secure a spot in Roland Garros qualifying, but he would then fail to make the main draw by losing to Sebastian Korda in the opening draw. After last year’s shortened clay court season had finished, Karatsev continued posting solid results indoors and trained hard to be at his best for the 2021 Australian Open.
As a qualifier, Karatsev eliminated Diego Schwartzman, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Grigor Dimitrov in Melbourne on his way to his first Grand Slam semifinal. Together with his maiden ATP title at Dubai (already at the 500 level) that he would earn in February, Karatsev compiled a 16-3 win/loss record on hard courts in the first three months of the season. What’s perhaps even more impressive is the quality of the only opponents that managed to take him out – Sebastian Korda, Dominic Thiem, and Novak Djokovic.
That beast-mode version of Karatsev didn’t completely disappear coming into the clay-court season as the Russian would go on to score three top 10 wins in that part of the season – over world #9 Diego Schwartzman, world#2 Daniil Medvedev, and the best one of them well against world #1 Novak Djokovic – the consistency in the results just wasn’t there anymore. Still a threat to defeat anyone on a given day, Karatsev’s hyper-aggressive playstyle misfired more often on the slower surface. Challenger Tour competition wasn’t ready for it, but a lot of the elite opposition was.
Karatsev went 9-6 in this year’s clay-court season, making the final in Belgrade where he beat Djokovic (lost to Matteo Berrettini). That said, he again pretty much avoided disappointing losses, only going out to the aforementioned Berrettini, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Reilly Opelka, Jannik Sinner, and Alexander Bublik. The one event where he really should have done more was the French Open as he was rather comfortably dispatched by the veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second round.
With only five professional matches on grass before this season, Karatsev’s performance on the lawn was under a huge question mark. Despite seemingly well suited to the surface with his playstyle, the Russian clearly couldn’t embrace its unique challenges and struggled throughout his three matches, scoring the only win over World No. 171 Alejandro Tabilo, a clay-court specialist.
After almost four months away from hard courts, Karatsev came back to the surface that gave him the most joy on the ATP Tour at the Tokyo Olympics. Paul got a taste of what 16 quality opponents faced earlier in the season. The Russian hits everything fast off the bounce, never allowing his rivals any breathing space. This style is very prone to unforced errors, but when everything is clicking like on Saturday, there’s just not that much the opponent can do. Karatsev dropped only thirteen points on serve in the entire match and got a lot of quality returns in, breaking Paul three times to grab a clean 6-3 6-2 victory.
The 27-year-old will now get a chance to take revenge on Jeremy Chardy, who eliminated him in the opening round at Wimbledon. Karatsev will like his chances a lot more on the slow hard courts in Tokyo and he will do everything in his power to try to avoid giving the Frenchman enough time to set up his massive forehand. Luckily for him, he’s got a skillset designed to do just that. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Karatsev is also competing in men’s doubles (with Daniil Medvedev), and in mixed doubles (with Elena Vesnina).
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