On Wednesday, Andrey Rublev will face Daniil Medvedev in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Read our preview of that match here—as well as the following profile, from the January/February 2021 issue of Tennis Magazine.
He describes himself as someone who was “born to compete.” Hardly a surprise when you understand just how much he appreciates wielding a tennis racquet. He sends back strikes that can disarm opponents, warns Roger Federer, who has experienced it first hand. His forehands are out of this world, and at times, so is his unrestrained hair.
Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” may well be the soundtrack of Andrey Rublev’s soul, for he will do whatever is necessary to end each day a superior version of himself.
It was around age 3 when this ambition began—practically inherent, with mom Marina working as an esteemed coach. At 16, Rublev became a junior Roland Garros champion. At 19, he faced childhood idol Rafael Nadal in the 2017 US Open quarterfinals, just six weeks after winning his first ATP title. At 20, he was inside the Top 40, poised to scale even greater heights as Russia’s highest-ranked player.
Rublev’s 2018 campaign began with a runner-up finish in Doha, but from there, injuries and inconsistency derailed a once-promising season. In April, a stress fracture in his lower back sidelined him for three months, leading to an internal struggle of spending 24 hours a day disconnected from his comfort zone. Shortly after his return, he went 1-8 during a stretch of sagging play. By February 2019, his ranking slipped to No. 115. In May 2019, he was out of commission again, with a right-wrist injury.
“I started to hate myself because I was the one who got this injury,” Rublev says 18 months later, those times a distant but impactful memory. “But it was not something unlucky. I did it managing emotions and turning by stupid things,” he continues, choosing not to elaborate. “I bring on this injury and was really disappointed with myself. The first three weeks, I didn’t want to go out of the room.”
The setback initially tortured the Moscow native, who may have been his own worst enemy from a physical and mental standpoint—until he transformed the predicament into a teachable moment.
“It was tough but a great lesson,” he says. “I was not able to play with the right hand, but [I] could do the fitness, the footwork. So I put a goal in my head to improve and adapt for those couple of weeks as much as I can. To be ready to compete when I’m going to play.
“The injury gave me a lot of understanding. It changed a little bit my philosophy about life and sports. It helped me a lot.”
Managing emotions and turning off discouragement have been layered themes of Rublev’s career advancement. Checking his nerves at the service line has never come easy despite the impatient artist’s exceptional abilities. Enter coach Fernando Vicente, who began working with Rublev in 2016. The former world No. 29 has been instrumental in Rublev reworking his mindset from win or lose to win or learn.
The two have formed a special bond, one that is built on openness. A genuine student of the game, Rublev discusses each match he plays with Vicente. Conversations can last for 10 or 15 minutes, or go on for hours, and their dialogue isn’t restricted to what’s happening on the court.
“When we are at tournaments, when I don’t need to play, we can sit somewhere outside and just start to talk about life,” Rublev says. “Sometimes we can sit until it’s late. He’s saying his feelings, I’m saying mine. These kinds of private talks make you even closer to each other. It’s really nice.”
There’s a natural comfort between both sides in sharing whatever is on their mind, a rapport Rublev undeniably values.
“Normally with the matches, he knows everything,” Rublev says. “It is clear. I have learned a lot of things from him. When I’m outside of the court, if I lost or won, most of the times I know exactly what he’s going to tell me. The things he’s telling me, 99.99 percent I agree. In all the years, there were maybe a few things I was thinking in a different way. I was not even against it. And then I realized what he was saying. I’m really lucky we have a good connection and how he understands tennis.”
Even a months-long stoppage due to a global pandemic couldn’t halt Rublev’s momentum in 2020. (Getty Images)
With the nagging wrist injury behind him in June 2019, Rublev needed a month of tournament play to find his footing. Then he roared back: a runner-up finish in Hamburg; a sizzling 62-minute win over Federer in Cincinnati; a fourth-round run at the US Open, where he outslugged Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios; a title on home soil in Moscow; and a 4-0 mark at the year-end Davis Cup Finals.
His goal during the five-week pre-season that followed was customary: harder, better, faster, stronger. Self-improvements were in, expectations were out.
While his friends Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov competed Down Under in the inaugural ATP Cup as the top-two ranked Russians, Rublev began his 2020 campaign in Doha, winning all eight sets he played to raise the trophy. Vicente threw out the suggestion of his pupil withdrawing from Adelaide, given the long-haul travel, complete change in conditions, limited preparation time and potential health risks. As they reviewed the matter, Rublev conveyed his desire to simply try before making the call.
“I had a bye [in Adelaide], so I was able to save one more day for practice. I said, ‘Let’s go there, practice this one hot day and see how I feel,’” Rublev recalls. “If I feel completely destroyed, feel like my body is in danger, we’re going to pull out. If I feel OK to play, we try to play. In the end, I was again without expectations.
“I tried, win a match, played, win another match, had an amazing semifinal against Felix [Auger-Aliassime]. It came out of nowhere.”
After two weeks, Rublev had won two titles—he dropped just three games in the Adelaide final to Lloyd Harris—and his labor didn’t impede him from advancing to the round of 16 at the Australian Open for the first time. His 15-3 start to the year was put on hold when the ATP shut its doors for five months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it hit Rublev that he, once again, would miss out on completing a full season on tour. But he soon accepted the hiatus from competition was beyond his control.
With seven titles to his name, the 23-year-old’s next logical step would be winning an ATP Masters 1000 tournament, or going very deep at a major. (Getty Images)
As he worked to enhance his game while under quarantine, gratitude was the everyday thread in Rublev’s life that keep him pressing forward.
“It was not about tennis or me. It was about the world,” Rublev says. “People were dying. People were losing jobs, had no money to pay for food. When you have a general problem like this, you cannot even think about your little problems. You have to be realistic. I can say I’m really lucky in my case.”
What Rublev accomplished once tournaments resumed was a reflection of his daily motivation to evolve. He produced quarterfinal runs at the US Open and Roland Garros; in Paris, he rallied to win from two sets down for the first time in his career, against Sam Querrey. He swept all three ATP 500-level titles on the calendar, clawing back from 3–5 in the final set against Tsitsipas to win Hamburg, defeating Borna Coric for the St. Petersburg crown and taking out defending champion Dominic Thiem en route to claiming Vienna. He broke into the Top 10 for the first time in October, and soon booked his first ticket to the prestigious year-end ATP Finals.
Season-over-season, Rublev won five percent more on first-serve points while boosting his break-point conversation by eight percent. Were those upward movements due to tangible, tactical upgrades? Absolutely.
But as Rublev also points out, his base was already there. This was about bringing together heart and mind.
“A few years ago, I was doing well. At the end of 2017, I was close to [No.] 30 in the world. Somehow, I would have an injury or struggle a little bit mentally. That was stopping me from showing a good level on court,” Rublev says. “When I fixed some problems that were wrong with my tennis, I started to be more relaxed, less stress. Everything started to be a positive.
“The first-serve power improved a lot. I started to serve over 220 K.P.H. often. My second serve is getting much better. I always knew we were working in a good way, had a feeling that I was improving, doing well in practices, that this is the right way. We’re working really good, all of my team. I have amazing friends around supporting me. They give me a lot of energy. In this way, my tennis raised a lot because of them.”
With his impressive regular-season record, Rublev qualified for the ATP Finals for the first time. (Getty Images)
As the page turns, no one can predict how this season will look. From which tournaments will be played to when fans can fully return to the stands, 2021 will be another year predicated on adaptability and acceptance of circumstances. Acknowledging the only controllable aspect is the effort he puts in, Rublev declares: “In life, there’s still so many things I need to work on.”
Whether that’s at the courts, in a gym, on a running trail, or around the comfort of his home, Rublev’s progression will continue to expand the boundaries—more than ever, after hour, our work is never over. Work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger.