It takes a certain spirit to achieve the impossible. Vladimir Voltchkov was the last qualifier to reach a Grand Slam semifinal in men’s tennis famously inspired by repeated Wimbledon viewings of the 2000 film Gladiator.
Two decades later, Aslan Karatsev—whose name literally means “lion”—has repeated the herculean feat at the Australian Open. Even more impressively, it's come in Grand Slam main-draw debut.
“It’s incredible,” a speechless Karatsev said during his on-court interview.
With no crowds to rival a Roman colosseum, the 27-year-old Russian nonetheless left remote viewers entertained by his aggression on Rod Laver Arena, blitzing an ailing former world No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2, and guaranteeing two Russian men will contest for the final round.
Born near the Caucasus Mountains in Vladikavkaz, Karatsev has surged forward in 2021 to complete a nascent troika of talented Russian men on the ATP tour, led by Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, who will face one another in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. Where the former cut more rangy figures, Karatsev’s 6’1” frame is packed with a pure power to help strike some of the fastest forehands in the field. He clubbed past opposition like Diego Schwartzman and Felix Auger-Aliassime to become the lowest ranked man into the last eight in Melbourne since 1991.
The 27-year-old, who had previously fallen in Grand Slam qualifying nine times in his career, looked to have another upset in him when he forced Dimitrov into early errors and was first to break serve. The No. 18 seed and three-time Grand Slam semifinalist initially weathered the storm Karatsev created when 19 unforced errors decided the final five games of the first set.
Karatsev, who rallied from two sets down to defeat Auger-Aliassime in the previous round, would soon settle and find his spots, smacking a backhand to break Dimitrov as he tripled his winner count and evened the contest.
“It was tough from the beginning for me to hold the nerves. In the second set, I tried to find a way to play and by the third set, I felt better.”
Forced to take some big swings of his own, the 29-year-old swiped away a forehand at 0-30 to briefly stem the Russian’s momentum early in the third, but Karatsev kept impressing off the backhand side, twice landing winners off that wing to move ahead by a double break.
As the qualifier soared, Dimitrov looked increasingly hobbled, allowing his racquet to double as a cane and throwing in a stiff serve on set point to make for a medical time out and address a back spasm that began yesterday.
"It's his day, so I'm just taking it in and trying to move on," Dimitrov said in his post-match press conference. "It was out of the blue, just from a regular movement, but that's sport. It was super unlucky. I'd felt great overall in the past few days. I felt I was on a good path, had done great work. I was very positive and had beaten whoever I had to play, and it just came down to the circumstances of sport. I couldn't put my socks on before the match, so I knew it was going to be a tough moment for me.
"I tried, but it wasn't good enough. He absolutely deserved to win."
Though the Bulgarian was clearly hampered in the final two sets, the Russian rose to the occasion and hit through his nerves, ending the match with nine aces and 34 winners.
Eight-time champion Novak Djokovic or Alexander Zverev loom for the lion-hearted Karatsev, but when looking ahead at his chances in the semis, use “impossible” at your peril.