By Giri Nathan
I have puzzled over Aslan Karatsev long enough that I no longer remember what the weirdest parts of this story are. I am too deep into this journey to look at it with any of my initial bewilderment. Is it the fact that this obscure Russian had three tour-level wins over the previous decade, but has 17 tour-level wins in the year 2021 alone? How about the fact that he was ranked No. 253 this time last year and is now ranked No. 27 in the world? And that he is doing all this at age 27? What about the way he cruised into the semifinal on his first-ever Slam, adapting to the rigor of best-of-five quickly enough to win five matches against top competition? Or his casual upgrade from dominating the Challenger circuit—which he had never before done—to dominating the ATP in the span of six months? Maybe it’s his scant five losses this year, all but one of which have come at the hands of a top 10 player in the world. Whatever it is, there is a man on my screen turning around his life fortunes at the apparent midpoint of his career, and he seems awfully chill about it, issuing calm platitudes about hard work and good health. Every week he raises the stakes of what would qualify as a surprising result. Slaying a No. 1 Novak Djokovic in your fifth-ever ATP match on clay? Sure. The game that first raised an eyebrow in February is now dominating the court week after week—it makes no sense, and it may well be my favorite tennis narrative in the brief time I have been writing them.
Setting aside his baffling match history and looking at his tennis in a vacuum, it’s not surprising that Aslan Karatsev could be a dominant ATP player. Early in the Australian Open I watched him play for the first time in my life and the image that cropped up was Marat Safin. On both wings, his hitting was immense, repeatable, and technically gratifying. He could place the ball in the back of the court, with heat, from the most awkward court positions. The way he extracted Egor Gerasmiov’s soul in the second round, dropping just one game, suggested an offensive ceiling I am frankly not sure I have seen in a player without major titles; most top 10 players don’t look like that even on their best days. But anyone can red-line for a single match, and some can even manage it for a whole tournament. Karatsev beat three top 20 seeds in that run—Diego Schwartzman, Grigor Dimitrov, Felix Auger-Aliassime—electrified the draw, and then hit a wall. Rather, the wall: Novak Djokovic. You would be forgiven if you bid Karatsev farewell in Melbourne and thought you’d never hear his name again.
But his level hasn’t really dropped since. There was no shame in his three-set loss to No. 4 Dominic Thiem in the second round in Qatar. And there was lots of glory in his performance in Dubai the very next week, where he won his first ATP title, extending this fever dream another week. To do it he had to dispatch two of the winningest young men in tennis, Andrey Rublev and Jannik Sinner, the former of which had won 23 straight matches at 500-level events before meeting Karatsev, and the latter of which was about to fight to an ATP 1000 final in Miami. These are hotshots with rich pedigrees; Karatsev was scrapping in the Challengers into his late 20s. The only head-scratcher of Karatsev’s whole year has been his loss to No. 87 Seb Korda, which again, would not remotely register as a head-scratcher if they’d played three months ago; Korda did in fact beat him in qualifying rounds for Roland-Garros and no one blinked. Now I’m looking at his loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas in Monte Carlo and sincerely wondering why Aslan Karatsev, in his first-ever ATP event on clay, didn’t put up a bit more of a fight. In roughly the time of a single semester, the Russian went from someone I’d be lucky to hear about from a Challenger-obsessed friend to one of those rarefied players I do not ever expect to lose. He has warped my expectations.
Which brings us to this past weekend at the Serbia Open, when they were permanently warped beyond all reason after I saw him beat Novak Djokovic, the one who ended his Australian Open run. To repeat myself: This was Karatsev’s fifth-ever ATP match on the red stuff. And he beat Novak Djokovic at a facility called the Novak Tennis Center. Not many people can send Novak scrambling on any surface, and here was Karatsev pummeling the ball through the clay and striking some very mean swinging volleys. (Perhaps the WTA’s monopoly on this lovely shot is finally cracking.) Their three-hour, 25-minute bout was the longest of the ATP Tour this year. And after all that, Karatsev still had the juice to take Matteo Berrettini to a deciding set tiebreak in the final the next day. Does he get tired? Is a top 10 ranking just an inevitability? Slam final this summer? I’m not saying that an all-time great just happened to materialize from the void…but I’m not not saying that, either.
Above: Aslan Karatsev pumps a fist at the Serbia Open. (Getty Images)