MELBOURNE, Australia — Fairy-tale runs at Grand Slams aren’t unusual.
Often, there will be a player or two who defies their ranking and makes an unprecedented appearance late in a major: unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s remarkable run in 2008 to reach the Australian Open final; Hyeon Chung beating Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev before succumbing to foot blisters midway through his clash here against Roger Federer in the 2018 semifinals; grass-court specialist Tsvetana Pironkova’s dream run to the 2018 US Open quarterfinals following a year off after giving birth; and unseeded Jelena Ostapenko shocking Simona Halep to win the 2017 French Open.
At the Australian Open, world No. 114 Aslan Karatsev is on the brink of adding his story to the list.
The 27-year-old Russian qualifier has reached the semifinals here after defeating No. 18 seed Grigor Dimitrov 2-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 on Tuesday, becoming the first man in the Open era (since 1968) to reach the final four of a Grand Slam in his main-draw debut. He is the lowest-ranked man to reach the Australian Open final four since Patrick McEnroe, who also was No. 114 in 1991, and the semifinals at any Slam since Goran Ivanisevic was No. 125 at 2001 Wimbledon. (Ivanisevic went on to win the title as a wild card.)
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. First time in the men’s draw, and first time in the semis, it’s incredible,” Karatsev said. “I’m just trying to enjoy the moment and not think about [the run] too much and playing from round to round.”
But his recent success hasn’t been from luck. It comes from determination he said began when he was younger and just learning about the sport.
Born in the Russian city of Vladikavkaz, Karatsev and his family moved to Tel Aviv, Israel, when he was 3 years old and soon after, he took up tennis. By the time he was 12, he began a set of dizzying moves — first to Rostov, Russia, then Taganrog, and later Moscow. By time he reached his early 20s, he had also spent time in Germany and Barcelona.
“Yes, I was moving, I would say, too much,” he said.
A late bloomer by anyone’s definition, Karatsev spent the better part of a decade globetrotting for training and, eventually, competing in the ITF Futures and ATP Challenger tours. He almost gave up on the sport four years ago when he was continually hampered by knee injuries.
“That was a difficult time for me because I recovered after [a previous] injury, and then 2017 started, and I start to play again, and again. I felt the knee, and I said, ‘Whoa,'” Karatsev said. “I quit again for two and a half months, almost three, and I think it [was] the most difficult part [of my career].”
But something seemed to click once he connected with coach Yahor Yatsyk almost three years ago.
“In the end, I found [Yatsyk] and this is the right guy for me,” Karatsev said. “He’s helped me a lot, more on the mental part, and then of course, there is the technical stuff, as well. I was really lucky to find him — we just met in one tournament. I played Futures, and we were saying, ‘OK, let’s try to work together.'”
Along with Yatsyk and fitness coach Luis Lopes, who is based in Doha, Qatar, Karatsev has settled into a solid routine. With the help of his support crew, Karatsev set new goals. While his aim to be in the top 100 by the end of 2020 didn’t come to fruition, the momentum toward a strong run had been building.
In 2020, playing on the ATP Challenger Tour following its COVID-19 pause, Karatsev put together a string of consistent results. At Prague in August, Karatsev lost to Stan Wawrinka in the final. At the Prague II tournament the following week, he won his first title since an ITF Futures title in January 2018, and he won again at Ostrava not long after. Last month, Karatsev made three doubles appearances for Team Russia during its ATP Cup triumph. Although he was on the losing side of all three matches, his higher-ranked Russian teammates noticed something special.
Aslan Karatsev, second from right, was part of the Russian team that beat Italy in the ATP Cup in Melbourne, a day before the start of the 2021 Australian Open. AP Photo/Hamish Blair
“[I am] really happy for Aslan, because he was practicing good in ATP Cup,” said Daniil Medvedev, who is vying for his own semifinal spot and played with Karatsev for Team Russia. “We felt like he could do something amazing. To be honest, being in your first Grand Slam main draw and making quarters is something exceptional. He’s not [done] yet.”
A self-described “aggressive” shot maker, Karatsev’s style of play has worked perfectly on the hard courts here, which players say are faster than they’ve ever been.
“I played here before, and it was slower, yes,” said Karatsev, who made appearances in qualifiers here in 2015 and 2016. “I think the fast surface for me, it’s always good. I take the time for the opponent. If you’re serving well, it’s always good.”
Karatsev’s high-risk, high-reward style means that, while he blasts flat winners past his opponents at a staggering rate, he is also prone to making mistakes. In every match so far, he has topped his opponent for winners hit throughout the match, but in all but his opening two matches, he also has been on the wrong side of the unforced error count.
It’s “nothing-to-lose” tennis, but it’s working, as his bold, uncompromising style is paying off handsomely on favorable court conditions. Karatsev dropped just 11 games in his first two matches before taking down top seeds Diego Schwartzman (8) in straight sets, Felix Auger-Aliassime (20) in five and Dimitrov (18) in four — his first three career victories against top-25 opponents.
Next, he will face No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Thursday’s semifinals (3:30 a.m. ET; watch on ESPN2 and the ESPN App), as one of two Russians to reach the semifinals (Medvedev and Andrey Rublev face off in a quarterfinal on the other half of the draw). And with his semifinals appearance, Karatsev is set to earn more money from this tournament alone (at least $662,000) than collectively in his entire career ($618,354).
“I try to believe, every match, what I’m doing on the court, and it’s helped me to win matches,” he said. “I arrive to the court and say, ‘OK, I will try to do my best, and with more belief.”