The strangest and sweetest story line in men’s tennis continues apace. Aslan Karatsev, a 27-year-old Russian who started the year ranked No. 114, burst into public consciousness by upsetting every top player he met at the Australian Open, until the semifinal, where world No. 1 Novak Djokovic terminated his dream in straight sets. The winning could have stopped there for Karatsev—long is the list of obscurities who burned hot for a single tournament—but instead he maintained his suddenly all-universe level of play and won his first ATP title in March. This past Saturday brought an opportunity for unlikely revenge: Novak Djokovic in another semifinal, this time at the Serbia Open, literally played on the clay of the Novak Tennis Center in Belgrade.
Home-court advantage meant nothing in the face of this new deity. The recently anonymous Karatsev beat the best player on tour at his own facility, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, in three hours and 25 minutes. After winning the year’s longest tour-level match, a gassed Karatsev lost to Matteo Berrettini in Sunday’s final, but it’s hard to care after the previous day’s feats.
There are many ways to frame the absurdity of Karatsev’s turnaround, but the simplest might just be to use the pandemic as a dividing line. Before tennis was suspended last year, Aslan Karatsev was simply not a presence in the highest circle of tennis; he had played eight ATP matches over a decade of professional striving and gone 1-7. After the sport resumed in the fall of 2020, Karatsev went 2-3 in ATP matches, which itself marked an enormous shift in fortunes. Then 2021 kicked off and he collected a 17-5 ATP record, an ATP 500 trophy, a major semifinal, and a win over possibly the best to ever do it. Of those five losses this season, all but one has been against a top-10 player. And Djokovic is his third top-10 conquest. In the span of months, Karatsev has risen from the ranks of the unknown and started beating up on the very, very known.
Flashy upsets on paper don’t always or even often entail a quality match, but Saturday’s victory over Djokovic was a keeper. A lesser player might’ve shrunken after going up a break in the second set and letting that chance slip away, but Karatsev showed the steel traditionally associated with the man across the net, as he defended all 10 break points in the third set and 23 of 28 in the match overall. His flat and angry ball-striking has stayed similarly devastating as the tour moved to the higher and slower bounces of clay. He presents quite a blueprint for beating Djokovic on a surface where his signature defense can look even more impenetrable, though it’s a tiny group of players who can hit the ball purely enough to pull this off.
After losing the final, Karatsev insisted that he did not just wake up this good one morning in January. “I had some injuries before and some troubles, and now we’re doing a good job with my coach. It’s been two and a half years and it’s just paying off in 2021,” he said. “It’s not like it’s coming all of a sudden from nowhere. It’s coming from the hard work every day, and it’s a long process.” Given that a slew of knee injuries had him questioning the viability of his career back in 2017, the biggest factor may well be this long-awaited stretch of decent health.
Now ranked No. 27, Karatsev said a top-20 slot is his next goal. It all makes for a neat experiment in delayed gratification. Spend the first half of your career laboring in the mines of Futures and Challengers, coping with injuries, and finding the coach that works for you; emerge at age 27, ox-strong and fully realized, with a game big enough to test the all-timers. Pretty cool way to do it.