INTERVIEW: Rublev chats with Prakash after beating Tsitsipas

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What a difference a week off can make.

One thing you can’t say about the ATP’s Next Gen is that they slack off when it comes to competing. Maybe it’s because they wanted to make up for a pandemic-shortened 2020, but the tour’s younger set have played a lot of tennis this year. Aslan Karatsev played 42 events, Jannik Sinner 41, Casper Ruud 34, Hubert Hurkacz 31, Cam Norrie 30. It didn’t help them catch Novak Djokovic, who finished No. 1 despite entering just 13 tournaments. But it kept them all in the hunt for the ATP Finals until the final weeks of the season.

Andrey Rublev didn’t quite match the productivity of the players I mentioned above, but he put his time in. He played 27 events, and he kept going into November despite having cliched his spot in Turin. The strain seemed to show, though. After reaching a Masters 1000 final in Cincinnati, he went just 6-6, and finished his year with four losses to players outside the Top 25. Finally, after falling to Taylor Fritz in his opening round in Bercy, Rublev skipped the season’s last tournament, in Stockholm. It seems that the break, and the two weeks of practice, agreed with him. Rublev showed up for his first round-robin contest in Turin with renewed energy on Tuesday, and started his week with a 6-4, 6-4 win over one of his primary rivals, Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Rublev evened his head-to-head series with the Greek to 4-4.

Rublev evened his head-to-head series with the Greek to 4-4.

More important, Rublev showed up with renewed power and precision on his first serve. On a quick court, in controlled indoor conditions, that shot alone was enough to win him this match. Rublev won 37 of 41 points on his first serve, made 22 of 24 of them in the first set, and didn’t face a break point in his 10 service games. Rublev’s confidence flowed from there. He hit 31 winners, made just seven errors, and was nine of 11 at net. Anytime Tsitsipas, who committed 17 errors, had a sniff on Rublev’s serve, the Russian closed it down with a bomb on the line.

Rublev couldn’t have gotten off to a faster or more efficient start. He’s 1-0 in matches and 2-0 in sets, and he was the court in 91 minutes, in a match that wasn’t as close as its score, and featured precious few long rallies. Unfortunately for him, the next one might be a little trickier. On Wednesday, Rublev will face Novak for the first time—believe it or not, the world No. 1 and 5 have never played. If he’s firing first serves the way he did today, even Djokovic will be hard-pressed to break him. If he isn’t, he could be in trouble. Rublev was just six of 19 against Tsitsipas on second-serve points agains Tsitsipas. That percentage could go even lower against the best returner in the game.