How Roman Safiullin Became Russia’s Unlikely Hero at the ATP Cup

Roman Safiullin ATP Cup

Around 10 days ago, tennis player Roman Safiullin arrived in Sydney. Ranked 167th in the world and a mainstay on the Challenger Tour, Safiullin was meant to be an alternate for a stacked Russian team at the 2022 ATP Cup. Instead, the 24-year-old has been thrust into action and has reeled off four straight wins for his country. We take a look at his incredible journey so far.

Roman Safiullin at the 2022 ATP Cup

Rublev, Karatsev, Donskoy Withdraw

Russia, fresh off a dominant triumph at the Davis Cup Finals, was the heavy favorite coming into the ATP Cup. When the five-man squad was announced, some were surprised to see Karen Khachanov omitted. Safiullin had been put in his place. Nonetheless, it seemed unlikely that he’d get a taste of the action, with the Russians boasting three Top 20 players, two of which made up a brilliant doubles team.

The plan was simple: World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev would play the No. 1 singles, Andrey Rublev (No. 5) would contest the No. 2 singles, and Rublev would team up with Aslan Karatsev (No. 18) for any doubles matches. World No. 150 Evgeny Donskoy was on hand if necessary. Safiullin was there, it seemed, to be a training partner for the others.

Then, just three days before the tournament start date, disaster struck. An outbreak in the team left Rublev, Karatsev, and Donskoy all suffering from COVID-19. The trio went into isolation and were forced out of the ATP Cup. World No. 268 Evgeny Karlovskiy was brought in as an emergency addition, and Safiullin was bumped up to No. 2 singles.

Russia vs France

Despite the enduring presence of Medvedev in the team, not many were giving the Russians a chance in their clash with the French. Safiullin was the overwhelming underdog against Arthur Rinderknech, and France had a solid doubles team. Medvedev was expected to win in singles, but Russia would still need a miracle to go away with anything more than a point.

Safiullin provided the first miracle of the night. Facing a player ranked 111 spots higher than him on the ATP rankings, Roman played freely, daringly and managed to eke out a comeback victory. His 2-6 7-5 6-3 defeat of Rinderknech meant Medvedev would have the task of closing out the tie against World No. 29 Ugo Humbert.

And yet, the heavily-favored Medvedev faltered. Humbert produced a comeback of his own, triumphing 6-7(5), 7-5, 7-6(2) to force a deciding doubles. Once again, the Russians were on the outside looking in, with an exhausted Medvedev-Safiullin duo set to play a well-rested and much more experienced French combination.

Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Fabrice Martin didn’t live up to expectations. Safiullin’s perfect net play helped Russia to a convincing 6-4, 6-4 victory. Somehow, Russia had won, and Safiullin was the unlikely hero.

Russia vs Australia

Hosts Australia were flying high after their victory against Italy. Russia, on the other hand, couldn’t possibly count on Safiullin to replicate his performance from the tie with France. And yet, that’s exactly what happened.

Clean ball-striking and unwavering confidence helped Safiullin to a 7-6(6) 6-4 victory over World No. 49 James Duckworth in the opening match. Once again, the 24-year-old had defied the odds. This time, he did it with the crowd against him too.

Medvedev did his job at the second time of asking, comprehensively defeating Alex de Minaur 6-4 6-2. The tie had been sealed, and the two-man Russian squad had improved to 2-0 in group play.

The doubles were still absolutely crucial. With a tie against Italy coming next, Russia needed a doubles win against Australia to give themselves more breathing room at the top of the table. And that’s just what they did. Despite a solid performance from John Peers and Luke Saville, it was Safiullin and Medvedev who had the edge when it mattered most. They played a near-flawless match tiebreak en route to a 7-6(7) 3-6 10-6 win.

What’s Next for Safiullin and Team Russia?

The job is not done yet for the dream team. They still have a massive mountain to climb if they are to beat Italy. Safiullin faces World No. 10 Jannik Sinner on Thursday, his toughest opponent yet. Both players have won each of their first two matches. In the No. 1 singles, meanwhile, Medvedev takes on World No. 7 Matteo Berrettini. Both matches could go either way.

As is often the case at team events, doubles could decide the tie. One thing’s for sure–Roman Safiullin will be ready.

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