Is Russia now a tennis superpower?
For Russia, the 2021 Davis Cup title ended a 15-year wait for the trophy. That show-stopping win is the latest act of a set of stories that could be just beginning.
Russian tennis has arguably never been at a more exciting point or had a greater depth of talent than it does right now.
Daniil Medvedev has the best win ratio of any player in 2021 and is poised to overtake Novak Djokovic should the man to beat not repeat the sensational form he has shown this year.
Andrey Rublev – a player whose hard-hitting court style does justice to his love of boxing – is fifth in the world and improving all the time at the age of 24.
Aslan Karatsev has enjoyed arguably the most meteoric rise of any tennis player in recent history, and there are five Russian women inside the top 40, including Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who reached her first Grand Slam final in Paris in June, ten years after she first made a major quarter-final.
New Olympic silver medalist Karen Khachanov is 29th after a year in which he also made two ATP semifinals and reached the final eight at Wimbledon for the first time.
Even the two players currently between Medvedev and Rublev in the top five both have Russian heritage: world number three Alex Zverev was born in Hamburg to parents who both played professionally for the Soviet Union, and Greek world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas’s mother is Russian.
ROCKETING UP THE RANKINGS
Most elite tennis stars have a journey from hard knocks to riches. Few are as ripe for a cinematic retelling as the one Karatsev could tell.
Karatsev was almost outside the top 300 at the start of 2020. As Djokovic himself has campaigned about over the past year, there is a steep drop-off in everyday luxuries for those on tour outside of the top 100, often entailing earning money at one tournament to narrowly pay for the next.
Karatsev’s coach between 2008 and 2015, Alexander Kuprin, had to sell the academy where his star pupil was first spotted to pay off debts. He has spoken about scraping together money to travel far and wide to tournaments, eating at fast food outlets and all-but sleeping rough. Until little more than a year ago, that was only the marginally more extreme side of Karatsev’s reality at challenger tournaments.
In 2011, the future for the next nine years or so perhaps looked brighter when a teenage Karatsev won a title in Russia, receiving recognition from Marat Safin, the Russian tennis legend who won the US Open in 2000 and the Australian Open in 2005.
Kuprin was stunned to find himself staying in a luxury hotel laid on by the organizers of the ceremony, although he has admitted that he faced a struggle to source suits for the entourage he was part of.
If anyone involved had hoped this would be a passing of the baton between Safin and Karatsev – or at least the generation he belonged to – they might not have expected it to be quite such a slow burn to regular senior success.
It took ten years for Vladikavkaz-born Karatsev to even compete at a Grand Slam for the first time, yet his 2021 meant he peaked at the same time as Medvedev, Rublev and Khachanov.
Winning a challenger tournament in Dubai took him to that first Grand Slam tournament, in Melbourne at the start of 2021. He would have met Medvedev in the final had he not been beaten by Djokovic in the final four.
At the time, Karatsev had fewer Twitter followers than many of his fans. His most recent Instagram photo showed him playing with a dog in a garden. The trappings of fame and endorsements, you sense, still remain a world away.
“He has this modesty from childhood – shyness,” Kuprin said earlier in the year, even revealing how a nun he sought out had prophesied an explosion of success for Karatsev shortly before her death.
“He does not like anything ostentatious. Even for photographs with a ship in Dubai, I think, his team posted them, not him.”
Kuprin says he always knew Karatsev would be world number one. Medvedev and Rublev would doubtless have plenty to say in that reckoning, while Khachanov has had a much longer and more consistent run at the top, winning his first ATP title in 2016, not long before he first threatened to make the second week of a Grand Slam.
Karatsev's former coach Alexander Kuprin says that at the start of Aslan's pro career he went to training camps organized by Gunter Bresnik. "Bresnik offered him a contract but demanded 30% [of his earnings]."Kuprin's intw with lots of anecdotes (in RUS)https://t.co/p8ZYNEkg6L— Oleg S. (@AnnaK_4ever) April 26, 2021
BREAKTHROUGHS AND GROWING PAINS
The pinnacle of this quartet’s achievements so far came in September 2021, when Medvedev breezed past Djokovic in that US Open final on a night that was supposed to be all about the world number one completing his Grand Slam.
Sure, Medvedev has looked like a contender who belongs for a while – but so have a litany of other would-be kings battling to take down the established three of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer with all the success of infantry firing paper darts at tanks.
That Medvedev did so in straight sets, mixing his game up with a maturity that was the next progression from his ousting of the top three seeds to win the ATP Finals the previous year, was arguably the greatest statement any player has recently made in challenging the kingpins.
There is a certain synchronicity between Medvedev and Karatsev. When Medvedev made his senior debut in a full tournament draw in 2015, it was to partner Karatsev in the 2015 Kremlin Cup.
Daniil Medvedev responding to the US Open crowd booing him in 2019."The more you do this, the more I will win for you guys."Two years later he wins his first grand slam at the US Open.pic.twitter.com/cW1KZjQQ9M— Sam Street (@samstreetwrites) September 13, 2021
Both men still had plenty of growing pains to experience: Karatsev has had many on his unusually convoluted path to the top, while Medvedev’s have tended to include various bizarre altercations with umpires.
In 2017, Medvedev beat fifth seed Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon, only to sully that impressive opening to the tournament by throwing money at an umpire’s chair, all-but admitting he had lost his head afterwards.
There have been long, soul-searching roadtrips across America to challenger tournaments and, at the US Open in 2019, a role as the pantomime villain when Medvedev first truly showed that he could stay with the elite.
Even then, as he poked fun at Nadal in the final, the reaction of the crowd appeared to show teasing appreciation of a player whose petulance seemed to be giving way to a much more likeable form of expressive eccentricity, not least when he collapsed theatrically to the floor before graciously allowing Djokovic to take the limelight after beating him to the title in New York.
It was a moment when the all-time great needed to be afforded adulation and time to process his considerable emotions after a near-miss at the end of an outstanding season, and Medvedev showed admirable class in accommodating that on the greatest occasion of his career.
It's a mutual admiration society between Novak Djokovic & Daniil Medvedev 🙌"Nowadays, he's becoming more all-around player, more complete," Djokovic said about Medvedev. "As a result, he's a Slam champion fighting for year-end No. 1. As I said, it comes as no surprise to me." pic.twitter.com/UEiabb6WOM— Musab (@Musab_Abid) October 31, 2021
DRAWING ON THE INFLUENCE OF LEGENDS
There are more than a few theories around why Russia currently has such a hold on the top of the sport, particularly in the men’s game.
Some would argue that it is serendipity for a country with a population of 144 million, and others would contend that we are witnessing a continuation of certain nations dominating in five or ten-year cycles.
Then there is the influence of those players from the early 2000s: Safin was a hero to Rublev, who listened to his parents screaming with excitement while the man himself beat Federer in a semi-final classic on his way to his last title, in Melbourne in 2005.
“I liked Nadal when I was kid,” said Rublev, who is grateful for the sacrifices his family made to pay for the hefty expenses of an early grounding in tennis.
Rublev’s parents provided strong sporting influences closer to home: his father is a former professional boxer, while his mother is a nationally-honored tennis coach who worked with the likes of former world number one Anna Kournikova. No wonder they were excited to watch Safin prevail all those years ago.
Making fun of Rublev pic.twitter.com/gX0u3Xe3Oy— Daniil Medvedev FC (@medvedev_fans) December 8, 2021
“When I saw [Nadal and Safin] for the first time, I liked it,” he says of his key early influences. “Straight away, I liked them.”
The legendary Maria Sharapova was in attendance when Medvedev triumphed at Flushing Meadows. At 30, Russia’s greatest current female hope, Pavlyuchenkova, has spoken of her desire to avoid becoming as distracted as she was when she first set eyes on the five-time Grand Slam title winner.
“With age, I try not to pay attention to things that happen off the court,” she said, calling Sharapova “a kind of brand.”
“She became a famous athlete when I was little. I looked at her with my mouth open… that heightened attention is quite explicable.”
Rublev and Medvedev have known each other since they were children. “We were crying, throwing the rackets at the fans,” Medvedev once said, referring back to those formative bouts of hot-headedness which endured for several years.
“We were young, of course, so we hated to lose. I was doing only lobs at the time. I don't think he was hitting the ball as hard as right now. They were crazy matches.”
Rublev is a fan of Mike Tyson and, with his interest in electronic music, superstar DJs such as Martin Garrix. He’s also been critiqued by Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the French and Australian Open winner in the late 1990s who is certain to have swayed a generation towards the courts.
“If you go to the tennis clubs where juniors are participating, they don’t want to be like Kafelnikov or Safin anymore,” Kafelnikov has reflected.
“They want to be like Medvedev or Rublev or Khachanov. That’s logical. It’s a good thing for them to follow someone and try to be like those three guys.”
Kafelnikov sees Rublev as still playing elements of tennis shaped by the junior ranks. He wants him to be better on his feet and improve his second serve.
Safin trying to put Rublev in a good way 😜 pic.twitter.com/xlN7aE9DTL— Vanessa F. (@lpbrvf) September 16, 2016
“He knows himself that he has to let go,” Safin has added. “He has a rich arsenal, good physics and is light on his feet. He understands what I’m talking about.
“Andrey needs to learn not to break down in stressful situations. In general, many people do not understand what professional sports are about.
“The sport of elite achievement is not about learning to hit with different hands and go to play, but how long you can withstand a stressful situation.”
Medvedev, Kafelnikov observes, is now much more high-profile than he ever has been in Russia. The 2000 Olympic Gold medalist even believes he could become better known than the country’s top footballers and hockey stars.
In a brutal individual sport, tennis players are perhaps among the athletes least well-disposed to celebrating progress without wins. Aside from that wait for the Davis Cup, Medvedev’s Grand Slam title was the first singles title for a Russian player since Sharapova won at Roland-Garros in 2012, and the first by a man since Safin in Australia in 2005, making him only the third Russian man to win a major.
#Tokyo2020 Mixed Doubles Podium🥇 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Andrey Rublev of #ROC 🥈 Elena Vesnina and Aslan Karatsev of #ROC 🥉 Ash Barty and John Peers of #AUS#Tennis | #Olympicspic.twitter.com/YjVmWo4XOc— ITF (@ITFTennis) August 1, 2021
Talk of Russia as a tennis powerhouse rings hollow without more trophies. Medvedev and Rublev will not want to merely capitalize by gift of Nadal and Federer being on the wane and Djokovic, at 34, surely waning in the foreseeable future, although there is no denying that the absence of the established triumvirate will ease the way for the players behind them.
If Medvedev can continue his near-unparalleled form – which would be some achievement in itself – he is certain to add to his collection. Rublev has never gone beyond the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam, although he has reached that stage in three of his past six majors, and tasted glory with Pavlyuchenkova – beating Karatsev and Russian Elena Vesnina – at the 2020 Olympics mixed doubles.
Pavlyuchenkova, for all her promise, was only appearing beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the second time in nine attempts when she made the French final, and Khachanov’s run to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon 2021, allied with his appearance in the final in Tokyo, will herald more extended runs, he will hope.
Ceiling-smashing Karatsev still has the glow that comes with being a surprise package. He had a storming end to 2021, beating Khachanov in the final four on his way to winning the Kremlin Cup, which made him an alternate for the ATP Finals.
Dmitry Tursunov, one of the winners of the Davis Cup in 2006, likened Karatsev to Federer after seeing him practice once. At their best, Medvedev, Rublev and Pavlyuchenkova can outclass the best, as they have threatened to do regularly for some time now. The challenge is sustaining those flashes of brilliance and making the remarkable seem more like the routine.