Looking around the upper echelons of the game, no one has made more strides among the men this year than the industrious Andrey Rublev. The Russian has just turned 23, and this deeply dedicated individual is playing the finest tennis of his life. He has captured four tournaments during an abbreviated 2020 campaign, a feat matched only by Novak Djokovic. He has displayed a consistency that heretofore was beyond his grasp. His sense of self, how far he has come, and where he may be headed is strikingly apparent to all seasoned observers who have followed the flight of his career.
Rublev just might be in the process of gradually surpassing Daniil Medvedev as the best player in Russia. Rublev strikes me as a slightly more stable competitor than his more accomplished countryman, a better ball-striker off the forehand, probably a superior all-surface player, and clearly more sure of himself at the moment.
Medvedev, of course, did outperform Rublev in a crucial contest when they collided in the quarterfinals of the US Open last month. But Rublev clearly had his chances before bowing 7-6 (6), 6-3, 7-6 (5) in a hard-fought and absorbing battle. The outcome was largely decided in the latter stages of the opening set when Rublev squandered 5-1 and 6-3 tie-break leads. That failure had lasting implications as a relieved Medvedev took control from the baseline and hit out with considerably more freedom and conviction the rest of the way.
Undismayed by missing out on some significant opportunities in that clash with Medvedev, Rublev moved on determinedly and went back to work with fervor. He took the ATP 500 title in Hamburg on red clay, succeeding in a spellbinding final-round duel with Stefanos Tsitsipas. Trailing 3-5 in the third set against the Greek stylist, Rublev captured four clutch games in a row.
Rublev celebrates after winning Hamburg- Getty Images
Tsitsipas served for the match at 5-4 in the final set, but Rublev ran out the match, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, to claim his first ATP 500 title.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Rublev said afterwards. “I realized it only when they called double fault [on match point.] A few seconds later I started to realize it was over and I won. I am so happy.
“I was going on court with no fear. The match was such a thriller. In the third set he was twice up a break. I was a bit lucky at 5-4 when I broke back. I think that was a little bit mental. I think Stefanos got a little disappointed inside that he didn’t make it, and then at the end everything was so fast and I won.”
Having said that, Rublev was exhilarated and gratified to make his breakthrough at an ATP 500 tournament, and understandably so. Moving on to Roland Garros, he rallied gallantly from two sets to love down against Sam Querrey. After Querrey served for the match in the third set, an obstinate and unwavering Rublev turned that encounter around and won in five. After a series of difficult skirmishes, he reached the quarterfinals and confronted Tsitsipas again.
This time, Tsitsipas turned the tables on the Russian. Rublev served for the first set at 5-4, made a stream of unforced errors, and never really recovered. Somewhat flustered, he was taken apart in straight sets by a top-of-the-line Tsitsipas.
Rublev, however, took the defeat well. He had averted danger time and again over the first four rounds. Against Tsitsipas, he had the upper hand but faltered. Rublev realized that this kind of turnabout was almost inevitable and was surely character building.
He said, “It’s part of sport. It happens all the time with me that everyone was serving for the set and I was coming back.”
The fact remains that Rublev has made the most of his opportunities this year and has improved markedly as a match player. He has won 34 of 41 matches, starting the 2020 season with ATP 250 title runs in Doha and Adelaide. He won 11 matches in a row before suffering his first loss of the season to Alexander Zverev in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
Now, Rublev has won two of his last three tournaments, and for the first time in his career he is ranked in the Top 10 at No. 8. His latest triumph in St. Petersburg was a prime example of the progress he has made. He recovered from a set down to oust Denis Shapovalov in the semifinals and then fought back from 2-5 down in the first set tie-break to overcome Borna Coric in a well-played final. Coric was unlucky to lose the last five points of that tie-break and eventually fall 7-6 (5), 6-4, but Rublev displayed remarkable aggression, excellent serving and magnificent defense to get the job done.
Rublev should be able to make his debut in London at the Nitto ATP Finals. That would be more than he could ever have envisioned when the year began.
Medvedev is ranked two places above Rublev at No. 6, and will likely finish ahead of him this year. But the feeling grows that the gap has closed considerably between the leaders of the Russian pack. In some ways, they are similar; Rublev, too, is a very emotional young man who emotes freely but sometimes hurts himself with excessive negativity. But in other respects Rublev seems more mature and more singularly focussed than his countryman.
Be that as it may, whether Rublev makes it to London or not, he has set himself up for a career-changing year in 2021. He has a chance to reach the Top 5 next season, to perhaps reach a final at a major, and to make his presence known increasingly and persuasively in the sport’s upper regions. That would be befitting for a player who has worked so hard and steadily at his craft.