MELBOURNE—History continues to stalk the Russian beanstalk, Andrey Rublev.
When the lanky yet powerful 22-year-old was the last man standing in Adelaide last weekend, he became the first men’s player to nab two titles in the opening two weeks of a season since sweet-hitting baseliner Dominik Hrbaty in 2004.
This after, in 2017, Rublev became the first men’s lucky loser to win a title in eight years—and later that term, becoming the youngest men’s US Open quarterfinalist since Andy Roddick in 2001.
This is easy to forget given Rublev’s subsequent injury issue, combined with the emergence of compatriot Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, but he was the first of the ‘Next Gen’ stable to really break through at a major.
And, when all is said and done, Rublev, currently at a career-high ranking of No. 16, could turn out to be the most successful of them all.
Rublev wins Doha. (Getty Images)
That is not hyperbole, such is the ferocity of his serve, forehand—and appetite for tennis.
“If you give to him hundreds of millions to stop tennis, he will say, ‘No, no, I won’t take it,’” his chilled Spanish coach, the former player Fernando Vicente (the ‘V’ is pronounced as a ‘B,’) told TENNIS.com and French sports newspaper L’Equipe in the player lounge on Thursday at the Australian Open.
“It’s so easy to go on the court and practice every day with him. He says to me, ‘two hours, three hours, no worries.’ Everything you want, he is gonna do.”
He has done little wrong in January after recovering from wrist and back injuries the previous two seasons, hiccups that forced Rublev to miss the French Open and Wimbledon in 2018, and Roland Garros again in 2019. They were troughs that Vicente said left his charge “depressed.”
Now into the fourth round of the Australian Open, Rublev's current 15-match winning streak (which includes four wins to close out 2019 in Davis Cup) is all the more impressive since he wasn’t lingering in Europe or the U.S. in back-to-back weeks.
Rather, he made the sapping trip from Doha to Adelaide, opting to get more matches instead of practicing at Melbourne Park last week.
“You have to understand that at the beginning, you make a plan and then you don’t expect to win that much so at the end, what to do?” said Vicente, who runs a tennis academy in Barcelona alongside the former coach of Milos Raonic and Karen Khachanov, Galo Blanco.
“We don’t expect we’re gonna win two.
“And when you are in the semis, you want to win. Coming here, it’s full of players, you don’t have space to practice and it’s good to stay in Adelaide. I know it’s a lot of matches, but if you are winning a lot of matches, what to do, tank?”
Rublev wins Adelaide. (Getty Images)
Rublev certainly didn’t, even if it would have been simple to start pondering Melbourne when he blew a match point in the second set of the semifinals against Felix Auger-Aliassime, and trailed 3-0 in the third.
Yet all the tennis and travel took a toll on Rublev, who was ill on the eve of the year’s first Grand Slam.
“The worst part was after the final and first two days in Melbourne,” said Rublev, whose recent exploits earned him a spot in the main interview room following his straight-set second-round victory over Yuichi Sugita. “Now I'm better and better.”
It was mostly straight forward against the 91st-ranked Sugita, despite Rublev erring on a match point at 6-5 in the third set when his cannon-like forehand sailed long.
Rublev’s face displayed his annoyance but unlike in years past, the moment of disappointment didn’t lead to an extended slide. He duly wrapped up proceedings in the tiebreak.
On Sunday, after falling behind a set and a break to David Goffin, the No. 11 seed, Rublev roared back, winning two sets and taking a 6-0 lead in the fourth-set tiebreaker. He closed out a 2-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory; Zverev or Fernando Verdasco await.
Projecting top-5 year 2020 ending ranking for Russian "Rubles"@AndreyRublev97 .— Kafelnikov Yevgeny (@KYevgeni) January 25, 2020
Rublev's ball-striking—and temper on court—make him one of tennis’ most watchable players.
Verdasco criticized his behavior after their 2015 tussle in Barcelona, and Rublev once trash talked another Spaniard, Tommy Robredo. But his temperament is no doubt improving while still driving Vicente “crazy” at times.
Rublev at the Australian Open. (Getty Images)
The histrionics are somewhat of a surprise since Rublev grew up idolizing Rafael Nadal, who seemingly has never tossed a racquet in his life. The paradox wasn’t lost on Vicente.
But away from the court, Vicente said Rublev has a heart of gold, and he—literally—wouldn’t hurt a fly.
“Andrey is having a heart like this,” Vicente said, holding his hands apart to mimic the size of a watermelon.
“When he sees one little mosquito, he can realize it’s there, and he’s so stressed because the mosquito, he doesn’t want to kill it, he’s really focused with the animals, and these things he loves so much.
“With the kids he is nice. It’s only on court, because he wants to win and he doesn’t know how to manage these situations.
“But the guy, he is 10 points (out of 10).”
INTERVIEW: Rublev in Doha
Rublev showed his softer side in his briefing with reporters, especially when queried by about Nadal, his conqueror in New York in 2017. He exuded shyness and warmth.
Asked whether he’d watched Nadal’s epic contest against Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, Rublev first reflected on their two previous finales at SW19.
“I remember I think the first final Rafa against Roger at Wimbledon, he lost in four sets,” said Rublev. “Then next year he lost in five sets. And I was saying, ‘Okay, this year (in 2008), I hope he is going to win. In the end, that was the match he won in five sets.”
So who was he rooting for when Nadal faced Rublev’s good friend Medvedev in last year’s US Open final? What a dilemma.
“I don’t want to upset Rafa, but I was sleeping,” he said, words that brought a smile to his face and the half-dozen journalists in attendance.
“I remember I woke up early morning, something like that, they were still playing. It was fifth set. I watched the fifth set of the final.”
A Grand Slam final might come too soon for Rublev in Melbourne. Fatigue is bound to overtake him at some stage, he still isn’t the finished product and there are stiffer tests ahead.
But Rublev, who was once part of a boy band, is for now striking all the right notes.