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With run to mixed doubles final alongside Elena Vesnina, Aslan Karatsev all but secures an Olympic debut
The Russian aims to maximize his medal chances in Tokyo after making the final with a former No. 1. “Everything goes towards the Olympic Games,” the non-nonsense Karatsev admitted.
Published Jun 09, 2021
WATCH: Aslan Karatsev scored a career-win over Novak Djokovic to start the clay-court season.
Aslan Karatsev was as far away from the 2016 Olympic Games as an athlete could be, ranked outside the ATP Top 200 and watching a volleyball match between Russia and Brazil on TV.
“It was an unbelievable match; we were down 2-0 and a couple of match points,” he said on Monday, invoking a nationalistic “we” to connote Team Russia. “The Brazilians were already standing up to celebrate but, in the end, we turned the match around and won.”
It was a result that ultimately proved prophetic for the 27-year-old, who has gone on to cap a late-career renaissance with a berth on the Russian Olympic team five years later.
“He always had the game,” recalled mixed doubles partner Elena Vesnina at Roland Garros. “I’ve known him since he was 13 or 14 years old because he was always a strong junior in Russia with great results. Then, it was as if he kind of got lost and I didn’t see him around.”
As Vesnina prepared her own comeback from maternity leave, the 2016 Olympic doubles champion (with Ekaterina Makarova) watched the now-world No. 26 go from qualifier to Australian Open semifinalist at the start of the year. She wasn’t more than a match into her return to action when she received a message from Karatsev, gauging her interest in a mixed doubles partnership for Roland Garros.
“Everything goes towards the Olympic Games,” the non-nonsense Karatsev admitted on Monday. “It wasn’t just because I wanted to play mixed. I was asking her if she wanted to play because it would be a good opportunity to play Olympics together and she has a good experience, a good career in the past, and she’s continuing now after being off for two years.”
“I really felt happy that the guy who’d just made the semifinals of the Australian Open was asking me to play mixed doubles,” Vesnina said later, noting the deep Russian men’s team that also includes world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev and Karen Khachanov. “I know we have lots of options, but nobody else had asked me!”
In his first-ever attempt at the dual-gender discipline, Karatsev’s raw power perfectly complements Vesnina’s finesse and experience. Taking out two of the Top 3 seeds, they’re already into the final, where Desirae Krawczyk and Joe Salisbury await.
The guy is the leader in mixed doubles. He is the one ruling, but when you’re playing mixed for the first time, as it is for Aslan, it’s a bit different. Vesnina, after her quarterfinal victory with Karatsev over Melichar and Ram
“It’s almost like doubles,” Karatsev says without irony. “Here, I try to be more of a leader with some shots from the baseline.”
Vesnina, who also reached the third round in singles, long took the lead in her prolific partnership with co-No. 1 Makarova, and occupies a similar role with Karatsev—though she allows him to think otherwise.
“It was a funny situation in our match today,” she said of their quarterfinal upset of No. 2 seeds Nicole Melichar and Rajeev Ram. “We were down 6-3 in the super tiebreak, and I was telling him, ‘Ok Aslan, I will get you this point,’ and I got it with a backhand crosscourt winner for 6-4. But then I told him, ‘Ok, now you give me the next point!’ We kept going back and forth like this.
“We have good communication during the match, which is great because he’s a quiet guy, and he tends to be more introverted with his thoughts about his game. I do what I can to relax the atmosphere, so I’ll tell him, ‘You’re better. You’re so much better than everyone else on the court. Just play your game, and go with the flow, because you’re playing great and you’re the best.’”
Initially tagging his ATP Cup victory as the inciting incident for his success, she jokingly adds, “So I’m trying to give him some of that self-belief too!”
Unsurprisingly adept at encouraging someone through their first steps, Vesnina is excited to add a trophy to the luggage of goodies—“toys, books, paintings”—she’s collected for daughter Elizaveta, who regularly FaceTimes mom and dad, Pavel Tabunstov, while his parents keep watch in Moscow.
“At the beginning, she didn’t know how to react, so she wasn’t talking with us. Now she understands how it works, so she tells me, ‘Mom, congrats with your win!’ I’ll ask her what she’s doing and she tells me, ‘I’m eating this pancake, and it’s really good!’”
The family is apart for the first time since Vesnina resumed her career, and plan to traveling together again in time for Wimbledon and likely Tokyo, where little Liza and big Aslan Karatsev will both enjoy a first trip to the Olympics.
“You cannot compare it to any other tournament,” he said. “It’s something special to play for your country.”