The 20-year-old American moved forward, made a nice half-volley pickup, and dropped the ball a few inches in front of the net. I don’t think I had seen him that shot over the past week in Miami, but he did it as smoothly and expertly as he does everything on a tennis court. With Rublev far off in the other corner, it looked like Korda had the point won, and it looked like he relaxed a little bit because of that. That’s when Rublev started his mad dash toward the ball; somehow he made it there with enough time to put a good swing on a down-the-line forehand pass. Korda was caught off guard, Rublev won the point, and broke his serve a minute or so later.
This wasn’t the turning point or the crucial point—Korda broke right back at love in the next game. But this moment did show what the (slight) difference was between these two players, and what Korda can learn from playing an elite opponent: When you hit a perfect shot, you may win the point; or you may just inspire the other guy, the Top 10 guy, the guy who recently won four straight titles at 500-level events, to hit something better than perfect.
“It’s always not easy when you face for the first time someone new, especially when you have a pressure,” Rublev said. “It’s even tougher. And I’m really happy that I could handle really well my emotions, I could handle pressure. I was able to win.”
Rublev and Korda stood near their respective baselines and gave up as little ground as possible. Korda held his own in those rallies most of the time, and one miscue in each set spelled the difference. Down set point at 5-6 in the first, Korda chose to take his first backhand of the rally down the line, and missed it long. Serving at 7-7 in the second-set tie-break, Korda double-faulted to give Rublev a match point. Rublev won it with an ace.
But this match wasn’t just about how the 23-year-old Rublev is a step ahead of his less-experienced opponent. It was also about how Korda pushed back against Rublev at surprising times, and with surprising force. As I said, when he was broken for 5-3 in the first set, instead of hanging his head, Korda upped his pace and precision and broke Rublev at love. The same thing happened in the second set. Down a break at 2-5 and starting to limp with a leg injury, Korda didn’t just take the L and move on. He called the trainer, kept playing, found another level again, and powered his way back to 5-5. When he crushed a series of forehands to take a 5-3 lead in the tie-break, it looked like he was going to win the set.
Even while he was red-lining, though, Korda’s limp never went away, and you have to wonder if he thought playing a third set with an injury he could aggravate was a good idea. The season is young, and he likes to think and talk big picture. Whatever the reason was, Korda never crossed the finish line, and he made his exit in two sets.
Rublev hadn’t faced Korda in a match before, but he was well aware of his ability and his pedigree. He knows where the kid gets his technique, and court savvy.
“I know really well his father [Petr] because he was helping me a bit, especially when I was maybe 16, something like that,” Rublev said. “When I was in Bradenton IMG he was helping me, giving me advices, hitting with me. I’m really grateful for him for this. I saw Sebastian even when he was even smaller, maybe 13. I don't know if he remember.
“His father is really smart. He knows really well about tennis. He teach him really well. You can see that he have really great technique. He have really easy shots, easy movement. I saw his matches.”
Korda may be the future, but Rublev is the present: He’s in his first Masters 1000 semifinal, and he’s the favorite to the win the biggest title of his career this weekend. Still, there’s no rest for the weary, or for the winning, in tennis. Tomorrow, he’ll face another tall, tough opponent in Hubert Hurkacz.
“I will do my best and we'll see,” Rublev said with his typical expectation-lowering modesty.
We will see indeed. As well as Hurkacz may play, you have to think Rublev, right now, will have the answer.