The young Russian sports stars to watch in 2022
Russian athletes made their mark in a host of sports around the world in 2021. But into the New Year, there are several rising Russian stars under the age of 25 to keep an eye on over the next 12 months.
At just 15 years of age, Valieva is already a bona fide figure skating superstar.
In her debut season among the international senior ranks, the petite ice queen has captured the ISU’s Finlandia Trophy as well as Grand Prix titles in Vancouver and Sochi.
Valieva has smashed world records along the way, and capped a spectacular year by cruising to victory at the Russian Championships at the end of December.
Ominously for her rivals, Valieva has vowed there is room for improvement ahead of the European Championships in Tallinn, Estonia, in January.
The youngster has already booked a spot on the Russian team for the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, and goes into the ladies’ singles event as the red-hot favorite for gold.
Coached by the renowned Eteri Tutberidze, Valieva has demonstrated a mature head which belies her tender years.
Should she carry her sensational form all the way to China, Valieva will be expected to make it a hat-trick of Russian Olympic female figure skating champions after the titles for Adelina Sotnikova in Sochi in 2014, and Alina Zagitova in PyeongChang at the 2018 Games.
Don't take your eyes off the ice when Valieva is around.
Russia endured a difficult 2021 in football terms, suffering an early exit at the European Championship and failing to qualify automatically for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The team has struggled to find any sense of attacking cohesion or identity, even under new manager Valeri Karpin, who took over from Stanislav Cherchesov following the Euro 2020 debacle in the summer.
But bright shoots are starting to poke through, not least in the form of 18-year-old midfielder Arsen Zakharyan.
The Samara-born youngster plays his club football at Dynamo Moscow, where he is already an integral part of a bright, forward-looking team which is challenging Zenit St. Petersburg at the top of the Russian Premier League table.
Zakharyan has scored seven times and registered 11 assists in 30 Russian Premier League appearances thus far in his budding career.
At international level he has been capped four times in the senior Russian ranks, laying on an assist in the win against Slovakia in October.
The youngster was forced to miss the Euros with illness and was also out injured for the crucial World Cup qualifying group match in Croatia, but will be expected to have a role when Russia attempt to negotiate the playoffs in March, starting with a clash with Poland.
Football transfer talk is notoriously mendacious but the fact that Zakharyan has been mentioned in the same sentence as the likes of Barcelona and, more recently, Real Madrid shows that he is turning heads.
If you’re looking for a young talent to watch in Russian football in 2022, you'd be hard pressed to find a better option than Arsen Zakharyan.
Already established at world number five and with eight ATP tour titles to his name, Rublev is perhaps the best-known name on this list in global sporting terms.
Nonetheless, still aged just 24 he is primed to go from strength to strength in 2022 and – if he continues his rise – will be expected to go deeper than ever at this year’s Grand Slams.
Big things were expected from Rublev after a successful junior career which included the French Open boys' title in 2014 and two medals at the Youth Olympics.
Things started well enough in the seniors as Rublev went all the way to the US Open quarterfinals in 2017, signaling the kind of potential he possessed as he also claimed his first ATP title the same year.
But injury woes followed in 2018 and 2019, to the extent that Rublev has even said that people “put RIP” next to his name.
He dropped out of the top 100 in the world, but mounted a revival towards the end of 2019, winning the Kremlin Cup. His resurgence continued as he picked up a staggering five ATP tour titles in 2020.
He added one more ATP tour crown in 2021, rising to a career-high spot of number five in the world and claiming Olympic gold alongside Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the mixed doubles in Tokyo.
Rublev was also part of the impressive Russian teams which won the ATP Cup in Australia at the start of 2021 and the Davis Cup in December – the latter being their first success in the premier men's team tournament in 15 years.
With his handsome looks and winsome personality, Rublev is a tennis heartthrob who just needs to add some steel to his game at Grand Slams.
Countryman Daniil Medvedev, 25, has already made his Grand Slam breakthrough with success at the US Open in September, and seems set to challenge Novak Djokovic again at the top of the pile in the coming year.
Rublev’s start to the new season has been disrupted by a positive Covid test before it has even begun, but once he is back on court he will endeavor to follow in Medvedev’s footsteps with major success in 2022.
Stepanova has been a breath of fresh air for the Russian cross-country skiing team in her debut season in the senior ranks.
Back in December, the 20-year-old produced a scintillating final leg in the women’s 4x5km relay in the opening World Cup event in Lillehammer as the Russian team edged out home favorites Norway.
It was the first victory for a Russian women’s team in the discipline at a World Cup stage since 2004.
🎞 Also the second Relay of the day was a close one 💥How about that for a thrilling finish fight by the next generations great ones Veronika Stepanova 🇷🇺 Moa Olsson 🇸🇪 and Helene Marie Fossesholm 🇳🇴 !!#fiscrosscountrypic.twitter.com/mVavppzVau— FIS Cross-Country (@FISCrossCountry) December 5, 2021
Elsewhere, Stepanova finished fifth in the women’s 10km at the FIS event in Muonio, Finland, in November, and 10th over the same distance at the World Cup stage in Davos, Switzerland.
The Beijing Olympics will likely come around too soon for Stepanova to enjoy major success, but she has shown she is working hard to build on the credentials she earned at junior level, where she was a Nordic world champion.
It's not just among Russians that Stepanova has been given a glowing endorsement; the likes of Norwegian 14-time world champion Therese Johaug are also tipping her for bigger things.
“Veronica is still young, the future is in her hands. She has everything to become a great athlete,” Johaug told Russian TV recently.
Off the snow, the Kamchatka-born Stepanova is an equally interesting social media presence.
She frequently shares images from training and isn’t shy to weigh in with her opinions on anything from politics to transgender athletes.
Russia has been desperate for women’s cross-country skiing stars in recent years and Stepanova could be the future the country craves – and she’s well worth a follow on Instagram along the way.
Russian ice hockey phenom Matvei Michkov only turned 17 on December 9 but is already on the radar of fans and organizations around the world.
A winger with KHL titans SKA St. Petersburg, he isn't expected to stick around in the domestic league for too long and is tipped for a move to the NHL as soon as he becomes eligible for the draft in 2023.
“Michkov brings every offensive tool you could want to the table; a wicked wrister, elusiveness, and vision,” hockey scout Dylan Griffing wrote ahead of the Under-18 World Championships last year in Frisco, Texas.
Michkov went on to produce what was described as “one of the best Under-18 World Championship performances in history” as he registered 12 goals and 16 points in seven games as Russia claimed silver and he was named tournament MVP.
He made his KHL debut for SKA in September and has played 13 games since, scoring twice and recording five points overall.
The Perm-born youngster is widely tipped to vie with 16-year-old Canadian prodigy Connor Bedard for the first pick in the 2023 NHL draft, but both seem destined for a rapid ascent.
In the meantime, Michkov will remain in the KHL, less illustrious than its powerhouse North American equivalent but well worth following – not least to keep tabs on Russia’s hottest prospect on the ice.
If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Nurmagomedov hails from one of Russia’s most famous fighting clans.
The 23-year-old cousin of undefeated former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, Usman is now forging a name for himself in his own right in the world of MMA.
A highly-rated prospect who stands unbeaten after 14 fights, Usman opted to pursue a path in the Bellator ranks rather than the brighter lights of the UFC for the first big steps in his career, but the UFC Octagon surely beckons further down the line if he continues his current arc.
Competing at 155lbs like his iconic cousin, Usman boasts a strong ground game – perhaps unsurprising given his Dagestani heritage.
Thus far he has largely been untroubled in his three outings under the Bellator banner, including an embarrassingly one-sided win in his last fight in Moscow in October.
Afterwards, Nurmagomedov called for a significant step up in competition and fans will be desperate to see what the young fighter is capable of in 2022.
He has since made headlines for unwanted reasons when a car he was traveling in struck a traffic officer, leading to his detention in Moscow, although it emerged that Nurmagomedov was only a witness in the case – even though he still had the riot act read to him by his illustrious cousin.
One of the men who coached Khabib to the pinnacle of the sport, American Kickboxing Academy guru Javier Mendez, has tipped Usman for similarly big things, describing him as among the most precocious talents he has ever trained.
“He can do it all. He needs seasoning, he needs experience and mental [strength], but he is by far the most talented and gifted fighter I’ve ever had,” Mendez told RT Sport.
Mendez might be biased, of course, but it will be intriguing to find out whether Nurmagomedov can deliver on that innate talent inside the cage in 2022.
Last but not least, if the aforementioned Arsen Zakharyan is one youngster to watch from Russian men’s football in 2022, then the female equivalent is defender Alsu Abdullina.
The 20-year-old Abdullina recently left Russian club Lokomotiv Moscow for English giants Chelsea, who were winners of the English Women’s Super League for the past two seasons.
A versatile left-back, Abdullina was noted by Chelsea for the “energy and physicality” she will add to an already star-studded team.
Born in Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan, Abdullina made a name for herself after moving to the respected academy at Moscow club Chertanovo, and from there heading to cross-city rivals Lokomotiv.
After signing for the London club owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, Abdullina spoke of her happiness at taking on what will be “a big change in my life and a new challenge.”
“I want to continue to develop as a player and progress in London. I want to help the team to win as many trophies as possible,” added the star, who has already won 30 caps for the Russian national team.
Abdullina will be playing under Chelsea women’s manager Emma Hayes, who is one of the most respected figures in the game.
“Alsu is a very good young player who has accumulated a lot of club and national appearances for her age," Hayes said in praise of the new arrival.
“Alsu is a versatile player who can play any position on the left, adding more depth to the squad. We look forward to seeing how she develops in our environment over the next couple of years.”
The move has been described as huge for women’s football in Russia as Abdullina arguably becomes her nation’s most high-profile female player.