“You never know when it’s coming,” Aslan Karatsev said after steamrolling past Lloyd Harris, 6-3, 6-2, to win his first ATP title, in Dubai, on Sunday.
By “it” Karatsev meant success, a career-changing breakthrough, that moment when you finally fulfill your potential. The Russian has experienced all of those and more so far in 2021. How many players break into the Top 100 and the Top 50 on the same day? That’s what Karatsev did when, after half a dozen years of toiling at the Future and Challenger levels, he came out of qualifying to reach the Australian Open semifinals last month. Now, after six more wins in Dubai, including back-to-back three-setters over Jannik Sinner and Andrey Rublev, it feels as if the 27-year-old Russian has established himself among the game’s elite for good.
“I’m really happy with my performance and really happy with my game,” Karatsev said. “After the Australian Open, I kept going, practicing hard…I showed a fantastic week and a good game.”
By now, Karatsev’s ball-striking skills may be familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less stunning to watch. With his forehand, he can inject pace into a rally with a simple snap of his wrist. Even if his opponent gets him running to his right, Karatsev can plant his right foot, cut the ball off, and create an offensive shot from what appeared to be a defensive position. From the backhand side, his rally ball, which he hits hard and safe up the middle, is a difficult shot for his opponents to handle, let alone do anything with. And whether he’s hitting forehands or backhands, Karatsev is just as precise going down the line as he is going crosscourt.
This isn’t to say Karatsev has turned superhuman. He can shank his forehand; he needed three sets to beat Dan Evans and Lorenzo Sonego earlier in the week; and he admitted to a bad case of closing nerves against his fellow Russian Rublev, who had won 23 straight matches at 500-level events. But Karatsev, at least for now, isn’t succumbing to the debilitating perfectionism that brings so many players down. He gets mad, he gets loud, he shouts and scowls; but he doesn’t sabotage himself by getting negative. And the longer this tournament went on, the more confident he became. Against Harris, he closed out both sets with love holds and powerful winners.
What accounts for Karatsev’s sudden turn in the spotlight, after so many years of waiting in the wings? He credits his coach since 2018, Yahor Yatsyk.
“I think the key is to find the right team, the right coach that I found,” Karatsev said in Australia. “I was really lucky to find him, and we just met in one tournament. I was playing futures, and we were saying, OK, let’s try to work together, and it’s really—I think it’s a big luck that we start to work together.”
At this point, Karatsev appears to be entirely self-sufficient on court. He hits his shots with conviction, doesn’t stray from his game plan, and finds ways to survive stressful situations. I doubt, at the start of the year, that officials at the Miami Open were worried about whether Aslan Karatsev was going to try to play their tournament. I’m pretty sure they’re happy he’s coming now.
While Karatsev was making headlines Down Under in February, another Russian was quietly undergoing her own transformation at Melbourne Park. After losing in the second round at the Australian Open, Daria Kasatkina stuck around for the Philip Island Trophy and did something she hadn’t done in nearly three years: She won a tournament. Unseeded and mostly overlooked, the 23-year-old former Grand Slam quarterfinalist won six straight matches, three of them over Top 10 seeds.
Was that a one-off, or did Kasatkina have that 2018 feeling again? This week in St. Petersburg, she showed that it might, possibly, hopefully, be the latter. In front of her home-country fans, Kasatkina won five matches and her second title of 2021. Granted, she didn’t face anyone in the Top 30, but when you’re ranked No. 61 and you’ve spent the better part of three years wondering where your best game went, you’ll take it.
This week Kasatkina didn’t look much different than she did when she briefly cracked the Top 10. She still had the flicky, spinny, versatile forehand, and she still had the speed and creativity. Unlike the last few years, though, Kasatkina also had her old ability to stay in a match and scrap her way through its ups and downs.
What did Kasatkina find that she has mysteriously been missing? For Karatsev, the change came from the outside; for Kasatkina, it came from within, and seemingly without explanation. For all of the coaching we get, and the self-coaching we give ourselves, sometimes success just…happens.
“I was fighting this tournament, past few weeks, in a different way,” Kasatkina said after her title in Australia. “For the past two years, I mean, I was fighting. Of course, I was trying to play my best, but just something was wrong. Finally I got this habit, I don’t know how even to call it, but this sense that whatever is going on on the court, I am there, I am there. I’m losing first set, I’m still there. This is the most important in tennis for me. I’m happy that I get this feeling back.”
Kasatkina rediscovered an old habit: competing. For those of us who love her creativity as a player and her honesty as a person, we hope it’s a habit she doesn’t break again any time soon.
Someone had to win Acapulco, right? The final was a match-up between two Top 10 players and potential future No. 1s, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. But it was also a match-up between two players who hadn’t raised a trophy yet in 2021. Tsitsipas had made two semis, and Zverev had reached the quarters in Australia, but so far every week had ended in frustration for the Greek and the German.
Through five and a half five games, it looked as if Tsitsipas would be the breakthrough boy on Saturday night. He was in command from the baseline, he was zoned in on his return, and he was quickly up a break. At the same time, Zverev was whiffing on overheads and blooping in 75-m.p.h. second serves with the creakiest of elbows. When Tsitsipas came up with a shoe-top winner to go up 0-30 with Zverev serving at 1-4, all Zverev could do was flash him a thumbs up. Even he seemed to think the first set was all but over.
“I don’t know how Zverev is going to hurt Tsitsipas from the back of the court,” Tennis Channel commentator Jason Goodall said.
Two games later, Zverev found a way. With Tsitsipas serving at 4-2, Zverev rifled two down-the-line backhands to go up 15-40; the second one he punctuated with a roar. It looked and sounded like a turning point, and it was. From then on, Zverev was the player in command from the baseline, hitting through his shots instead of safely looping them, and it was Tsitsipas who struggled to find a way to hurt him.
The match, which peaked with a 15-minute game at 5-5 in the second set, was a fittingly uneven display from two youngish players who can still swing wildly between jaw-dropping brilliance and head-scratching blunders. Zverev continued to float his second serve in, nearly whiffed on another overhead, and was broken when he served for the match at 5-4. Tsitsipas, meanwhile, lost the range on his forehand and return, and was burned at the net at the end.
But in the closing tiebreaker, Zverev regrouped, worked around his second serve, and was pinpoint with his passing shots.
“In the beginning I started off extremely bad, I thought I didn’t play well at all,” Zverev said after his 6-4, 7-6 (3) victory and his 14th career title. “I had to fight my way into the match, and I did well to win the first set. In the second set, when I have a chance I need to close it out against these top players because normally they won’t give you a second chance. I thought I played extremely well in the tiebreak.”
“I’ve always said that this is definitely a tournament that I wanted to win. I came here with a goal and I achieved it, and I’m very happy with that.”
Zverev lifted his first trophy of 2021, but he seemed even happier to don his first sombrero in Acapulco.