The ATP’s Next Gen has taken its lumps of late. While the tour’s 30-somethings continue to hoover up major titles, their supposed successors have continued to spin their wheels.
Over the first three days at the Western & Southern Open, those trends seemed destined to continue. Until Thursday, all signs in Cincy pointed to another title for either Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. At the same time, two of the game’s hopes for the future, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, made opening-round exits. As for Nick Kyrgios, we know how his Cincy story ended.
But all of that changed in the course of 62 stunning minutes on Thursday. That’s how long it took for 21-year-old, 70th-ranked qualifier Andrey Rublev of Russia to knock Federer out of the tournament, 6-3, 6-4 in the third round. Neither Federer, nor the near-capacity crowd that greeted Rublev’s winners with stone-cold silence, knew what hit them.
What hit them was a once-promising player whose career has been stalled by injuries, but whose shots remain as sturdy and lethal as they were when he reached the US Open quarterfinals in 2017. Federer and Rublev had never played, but it was the older player who looked taken aback—and was pushed back—by the pace the younger player was getting on the ball, and the relentlessness with which he attacked it. Up a break point in the fourth game, Rublev tracked down a Federer drop shot and whipped a forehand crosscourt that Federer wasn’t ready to handle.
It was obvious that Rublev was on his game. He was reading Federer’s serve, and passing him when he came to net. In the early going, Federer tried different spins and speeds to disrupt the Russian’s rhythm and elicit mistakes, but none came; Rublev finished with 17 winners and just six errors. Instead, it was Federer who couldn’t find a rhythm. The longer a rally went, the more likely it would end in a shank from his frame.
In the past, Federer has feasted on fast courts like the ones in Cincinnati, where he’s a seven-time champion. Last year, though, he talked about struggling to control the ball on the quick surface there, and he talked about it again this time around. “Conditions are fast,” Federer said after his first-round match. “It was just bang-bang tennis.” That likely went double in the afternoon heat on Thursday. Whatever the reasons, Rublev always had plenty of time to hit the ball, while Federer was constantly rushed. Bang-bang tennis is a pretty good description of how Rublev plays on any type of court.
Rublev had to qualify for this event, but in reality it was a long-awaited win for him. He has been ranked as high as No. 31, and he hits the ball too cleanly, and has had too much success in the past, not to rise to this kind of occasion at some point. He seemed to know it, because there were no signs of nerves when he closed out both sets. Serving at 5-3 in the first set, 30-30, Rublev hit a forehand winner and an ace. Serving at 5-4 in the second, he came up with two straight unreturnable forehands.
How much can one man’s, or one player’s, life change in an hour? We’ll find out from Rublev the rest of this season.