By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
Men’s tennis is not unfamiliar with this tale. A player breaks through the ranks to enter the upper tier of the sport and thus, as a consequence, also moves forward in the rankings.
Measured against this yardstick, there’s nothing out-of-the-ordinary in what Aslan Karatsev has done so far on the tour. He’s made his way from the challengers to the ATP World Tour. With each new successful result he’s had posted, he’s been reaping the rewards on the rankings front, too.
However, these dry facts aside, there’s indeed something extraordinary in Karatsev’s rise to No. 27 in the ATP singles rankings in March of 2021, about eight months after he was ranked No. 253 in the world in August of 2020.
For one thing, his recent ascent has been sudden more than gradual, although he has been a part of the pro tour for a while. This suddenness also conveyed that Karatsev’s previous appearances on the bigger events of the circuit – sporadic though they might have been – went unnoticed to the point that even the uniqueness of his name hadn’t sparked interest until he hit his stride at the 2021 Australian Open. Since then, Karatsev’s name has become such a popular choice for memes and analogies that it is getting repetitive and, at times, even unfunny.
Nonetheless, even as tennis followers ride the cresting of this popularity wave of the “Aslan Appellation,” the 27-year-old, on the other hand, has remained largely unaffected by it.
This lack of affectation on Karatsev’s part has spilled over to his on-court demeanor.
The ease with which Karatsev dispatches his opponents not only makes it hard for one to take their eyes off his game, but also hard to believe that he has not been a mainstay in the upper stratum of the tour.
Even if he’s down in the score – be it by a break or two, or by a set – there’s no visible let-up from him during those moments of the match. On the contrary, it’s as though Karatsev thrives in those situations, lulling his opponent into complacency before setting the tempo for the rest of the match. If this pattern is repeated across two matches, Karatsev’s game is anything but similar.
Adapting and adjusting one’s playbook to counter the opponent’s tactics is the most basic expectation of a player. In Karatsev’s case, his tactical variation makes him a much harder opponent to take on, let alone predict.
This thread of unpredictability can also be termed as a metonym for the recent upsurge of Karatsev’s career.
Thus, from this context, if his Australian Open successes were to have been a one-off – one of those unheralded runs that account for the customary fairy-tale eventualities in the Majors – his effortless sustaining of the upward curve of his career beyond the Majors has cemented the extraordinariness of his accomplishments, beyond rankings and results.
While the world at large took time to realize what Karatsev brought to the pro tour, his compatriots weren’t oblivious to him. In one of his recent interviews with a Russian sports outlet, Andrey Rublev shared his thoughts about Karatsev finding his place in the ATP Tour.
As translated by a Twitter user, Rublev’s is reported to have said, “I know him (Karatsev) since I was 14 playing juniors. You could spot his talent even back then. His late success could be explained with him relying too much on his talent while missing some other things that needed improvement. Maybe, didn’t take good care of his body, topped with injuries. Rethinking all that took some time, and now when he started to work seriously, his tennis unfolded differently.”
In this sense, Karatsev’s coming-of-age tale isn’t restricted to merely eight months but is one that has been drawn out for over eight years. Ten, to be exact, in Karatsev’s own words.
“Had you told me this I would not have believed it. You are just (kidding) yourself. With success, you never know when it’s coming, but I always believed I could make it,” Karatsev said, in an interview with the ATP, during the Miami Open. “…But (this success) didn’t come in one moment. We worked at it for 10 years, going back to the juniors. There have been a lot of ups and downs in the last three years. We have put in a lot of hard work.”
With this hard work yielding returns, Karatsev has all the more reason to extend this dash of extraordinariness into a marathon of workmanlike consistency.