By Seth Gellman
After winning the ATP Cup on February 2, World No. 4 Daniil Medvedev stepped up to give a speech on behalf of Team Russia. Medvedev first congratulated Team Italy on making the final before turning his attention to one teammate in particular, Aslan Karatsev. Karatsev did not play a significant role in terms of Russia’s win, as both Medvedev and Rublev won all of their singles matches, but that did not mean he didn’t have an impact. Medvedev said, “Aslan, I’m not joking, was our secret weapon for doubles.” The little known Russian from Vladivkavkaz was only playing the ATP Cup because third ranked Russian Karen Khachanov decided not to participate. Just two weeks later, Karatsev made the semifinals of the Australian Open and leapfrogged into the Top 50 after never being inside of the Top 100 during his entire career. So, how did he get there?
Karatsev was born in Vladikavkaz, living in Russia for the first three years of his life before moving to Israel. He trained from age 5 until age 12 in Israel. He moved back to Russia due to a lack of funding in Israel.
Onto his professional career: Karatsev played in his first ATP main draw at St. Petersburg in 2013. He lost to countryman Mikhail Youzhny. Karatsev played mostly challenger and future level tournaments from 2013 to 2020, floating intermittently into tour level tournaments but never many. He never cracked the Top 150 in the world during this time period.
During this period, however, Karatsev started working with coach Yahor Yatsyk in late 2017. Yatsyk is a close friend of Karatsev, somebody who he knew since he was 14. They started working together in Minsk at that time. Karatsev credits much of his success to Yatsyk, saying that his coach helped him “more on the mental part,” but also on technique and physicality. It hasn’t just been smooth sailing with Yatsyk on the team, though. In an interview, the Belarusian described a time when Karatsev lost 10 matches in a row in late 2019 and how it was difficult for the whole team.
At the rankings freeze on March 16, 2020, the Russian was ranked 253 in the world. Karatsev went on a tear after the pandemic, winning 16 of his next 17 matches and only losing to World No. 17 Stan Wawrinka, a three time grand slam champion. He would make the third round of qualifying at Roland Garros before losing to Sebastian Korda, who would make the 4th round and lose to Rafael Nadal. He would also enter the main draw in St. Petersburg and Sofia, losing to Top 30 stars Karen Khachanov and Alex de Minaur, respectively. Karatsev played one last challenger in Ortisei to round out his year with an 18-2 record on the Challenger Tour after the ranking freeze.
The Russian No. 4 entered 2021 high on confidence. He went to Doha, winning three qualifying matches to enter his first grand slam main draw. He returned to quarantine and then played the ATP Cup, losing all three doubles matches but winning the ATP Cup due to Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev’s singles dominance. Unfazed, he won his debut in a grand slam against Gianluca Mager in straight sets before destroying Egor Gerasimov, conceding just one game. After that, Karatsev dismantled 9th ranked Argentine Diego Schwartzman in straight sets before coming back from down two sets to love against Felix Auger-Aliassime to make his way to the quarterfinals. He then beat Grigor Dimitrov in four sets to become the first man in the Open Era to make the semifinals on his grand slam debut. Karatsev’s dream run ended at the hands of eventual champion Novak Djokovic, but that didn’t stop him. He would go on to win doubles in Doha with Andrey Rublev before taking his doubles partner down a week later in Dubai and winning his first tournament. Karatsev, or the “Lion,” as he’s called by fans, later beat World No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the Serbian’s own tennis center in April before losing the final to Matteo Berrettini in a third set tiebreak.
Karatsev is certainly the story of 2021, and he will likely only improve. Currently 7th in the Race to Turin, his path to success is highly unusual. There are hundreds of talented players on the Challenger Tour or in Futures that may have just not found the right coach or team yet, but have the potential to do what the Russian did. This unusual success story begs the question: What other ‘Secret Weapons’ are out there?