Tennis has long been a sport rich in records and lore.
From its transition from the indoor royal courts to grass-covered surfaces (and beyond), the names and achievements of legends past fill the annals of sporting history.
For a nation trained on the bounce of the fuzzy yellow balls, some of these names are synonymous with success; Laver, Goolagong, Graf, Sampras.
On the men’s side of professional tennis, three names have been filling up honour boards around the world in recent years; namely Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
But at the 2021 Australian Open, an unassuming Russian journeyman has rewritten the history books, despite being indistinguishable by most fans at the start of the week.
Aslan Karatsev is finally having his moment in the sun after playing top level tennis for a dozen years.
He’s making history on multiple levels
It’s hard to put what Karatsev has done this week into context, mostly because it hasn’t been done before. For a mostly unknown coming into 2021, Karatsev is certainly leaving his mark.
For starters, Karatsev is the very first grand slam debutant to make the semi-finals in the Open Era. In fact, Karatsev is the first male player to make a quarter-final of a slam in their first try since Alex Radulescu at Wimbledon in 1996. Only five qualifiers have made grand slam semis in the Open Era, putting the Russian in rare company.
He’s also the first player in 20 years to be ranked outside the top 100 to make a grand slam semi.
It took Karatsev more than two years to win his first match at senior men’s level, and more than six years to break into the top 200. Karatsev was outside the top 500 as recently as 2018.
Karatsev’s run is not just remarkable and rare, it’s practically unheard of. In an era where the top names in the game — Djokovic, Nadal and Federer — are padding their resumes for a claim to be the greatest of all time, Karatsev has made history in ways not imagined before.
He’s even earned one of the most one-sided victories in recent memory along the way. Karatsev is one of only two players, alongside Rafael Nadal, to win a grand slam match and lose only one game on the way.
This isn’t a case of history repeating but instead being created.
So what are the secrets to Karatsev’s rise?
Winning a tennis match isn’t a “one size fits all” deal.
Some players, like Diego Schwartzman and Alex de Minaur, are defensive-minded grinders; willing to chase down the mistakes of their opponents at all costs. Others, such as Reilly Opelka and John Isner, are power-based “Servebots”, imposing their will through the strength of their service game and hoping to eke out wins in close sets and tiebreakers.
The stars of the game manage to blend both elements, stealing away cheap points on serve and chasing down everything but the most overwhelming of winners.
Perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing is the hyper-aggressive type of player, attempting powerful passing shots from all angles and in nearly all situations.
Taking risks in tennis is always a measured exercise. As the ever-present eye of Hawk-Eye Live is willing to remind us, the difference between the greatest shot and a crucial mistake can be as little as a millimetre away.
In every match so far, Karatsev has had more winners than his opponent, but he has also had more unforced errors than his opponent has had winners. This means that it is his racquet that decides matches and not anything else. This sits in contrast to many of his fellow quarter and semi-finalists.
When it comes off, it’s magic.
So far this tournament Karatsev has the fastest shot speeds on both sides for the quarter-finalists.
Generally, extreme arm strength or long levers are the keys to hitting a hard ground stroke, but Karatsev has found another way to generate force despite his more humble frame.
To make up power and speed, he’s largely hit a flat ball on both sides, devoid of the heavy topspin that many top players deploy. Topspin tends to allow extra room as the ball passes the net and drags into the court at the back end despite all expectations. A flatter ball lowers the margin for error but on a fast court (like at this year’s Australian Open) it can be nearly impossible to return.
So far, Karatsev has successfully broken serve 27 times, more than any other player at the Open, at a rate of 71 per cent. For all top 50 players in the last year, the break point conversion rate is 40 per cent, with no player converting more than 57 per cent of his opportunities (Nadal). If his miraculous run is to continue, he needs to keep pouncing on these opportunities.
Every now and again a surprise shocks a major tournament into life. Perhaps the best recent comparison to Karatsev’s path of success is Robin Soderling’s remarkable run at the 2009 French Open, including a rare win over Rafael Nadal on clay.
Soderling recently described his thought process against Nadal:
“I didn’t know how to play with topspin anyway, so I just played even flatter. I didn’t care if I missed. I knew I wouldn’t win if I didn’t take my chances and that day it worked out really well. I was playing so freely. That was an amazing feeling.”
For a sport that occasionally gets stuck in grooves of defensive baseline play, Soderling and Karatsev’s unyielding aggression transforms the spectacle into something spellbinding for fans and foes alike.
With Djokovic and Nadal standing in the way to the title, Karatsev will have to keep taking chances at all costs, no matter how risky they may seem on paper.
It’s been a long slog
While Karatsev has been able to catch sunlight in a jar in the 2021 Australian Open, the rest of his career hasn’t been so fortunate.
Before 2020 Karatsev made his living at the lower levels of the top tier of global tennis, the Challenger level and below, where he struggled among players with varying levels of hope for the future.
It may be best summed up best by David Foster Wallace in his essay String Theory.
“A lot of players seem extremely young — new guys trying to break into the tour — or conspicuously older — like over thirty — with tans that look permanent and faces lined from years in the trenches of tennis’s minor leagues.”
The Futures level, tennis’s third tier, is full of guys trying to make their first mark, or make a comeback. It’s the level that pop stars like LMFAO’s Redfoo try their hand at as a change of pace.
Karatsev started out as the former example in Foster Wallace’s story, a junior who didn’t have the immediate success to propel him to main draws. In two junior grand slam appearances, Karatsev failed to walk away with a singles win. In recent years he’s slogged it out as the latter, an increasingly weathered face, with injuries and niggles to boot. His rise to the top has been slow.
But he’s finally made a big leap forward
While the rest of the world seemingly took a backward step in 2020, Karatsev started making his big leap forward.
The hard-hitting Russian started the year with a Challenger final in Bangkok, racking up an unlucky loss where he won six more games than his opponent.
During the COVID lockdown, Karatsev impressed on the US exhibition circuit, continuing to rack up the wins and gain confidence in his game.
And when formal tennis resumed in August, the man from Vladikavkaz reeled off three straight Challenger finals, winning the last two on the trot. He even clocked up his first two main draw wins since 2015, including his first non-walkover win against a top 50 ranked player.
Karatsev’s rise has been underscored by improvement in both his serve and return game.
This week, Karatsev has increased the number of top 50 wins from that solitary win over Australia’s favourite American player, Tennys Sandgren, to four.
He’s managed to earn two more ATP Tour main draw wins than in the previous decade of his career. He’s breaking all of the traditional norms of a 27-year-old lower-level lifer, and then some.
As a reward he faces the player some see as the greatest of the modern era — Novak Djokovic. A relentless tennis machine who has won more Australian Open titles than any other player. A player that can turn defence into attack in a split second.
It’s a tough ask, but no-one saw this coming (except for maybe Karatsev).
Regardless of whatever happens from here for the Russian, Karatsev has created one of the greatest runs in tennis history.