Russia’s tennis monster has steadily grown over the past few years. But at Melbourne Park, it has loomed larger than ever. First, Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev led their country to glory in the ATP Cup. Now at the Australian Open, three Russian men — with World No. 114 Aslan Karatsev joining Medvedev and Rublev — are into the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time in the Open Era.
The country’s stars are not just shining Down Under; they are making history. Back home, former World No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov couldn’t be happier.
“It was really expected that two of them got to where they are. The third one is a big surprise, but a very happy surprise. I’m very happy for Aslan, finally getting his breakthrough,” Kafelnikov told ATPTour.com. “He’s going to play a lot of tournaments now without any pressure for the remainder of the 2021 season in terms of getting into the main draws and a big pay cheque will also be a huge boost for him. I’m really happy for him.”
During the ATP Cup, it was clear Medvedev and Rublev were dominant forces for their country. The stars produced jaw-dropping performances against the best players in the world. They lost a combined two singles sets in the entire event, creating plenty of hype leading into the Australian Open. They have lived up to those expectations during the season’s first Grand Slam, where they will play each other in the quarter-finals Wednesday. But to Kafelnikov, regardless of what happens, this is just the beginning.
“We all know that it’s inevitable that they’re going to win a Slam,” Kafelnikov said. “It’s a question of when and where.”
Kafelnikov was the first Russian man to earn a Grand Slam singles championship at 1996 Roland Garros, and he also triumphed at the 1999 Australian Open. Another former World No. 1 from Russia, Marat Safin, also claimed two major trophies, with his most recent one coming at Melbourne Park in 2005. No man from their country has won a Slam since, but Kafelnikov will be excited for the countryman who changes that.
“To be honest, I would be happy if one of those guys or even both of them surpass me in terms of number of titles and weeks at No. 1 in the world,” Kafelnikov said of Medvedev and Rublev. “I’d be happy. I’m not going to be jealous about it. My career was very successful, and hopefully they will have even better [careers].”
A 53-time titlist in singles and doubles, Kafelnikov says that while Russian children once looked up to him and Safin, they now naturally idolise Medvedev, Rublev and World No. 20 Karen Khachanov. Their success is inspiring future generations.
“It’s a great example for the [Russian] parents who at one stage want to have their kids be on the same level [in sports],” Kafelnikov said. “It’s definitely giving them that kind of opportunity. [It is like] what I did with Marat back in the 1990s and early 2000s when we were coming up and playing well and becoming famous all over the world. I think they are great examples. It’s all up to them what is going to happen in the future.”
Medvedev, Rublev and Khachanov — who was not on the Russian ATP Cup team this year, but reached the third round at the Australian Open — are close friends. They have been on the tennis world’s radar for years, with all three competing at the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals in 2017.
They warned fans and reporters alike that while Karatsev was not getting the attention during the country’s title run, he was one to watch out for, too. According to Medvedev, Karatsev was Russia’s “secret weapon”. The 27-year-old “secret” is out after making the quarter-finals in his first Grand Slam main draw.
“It’s great for our sport [in Russia]. With Andrey, [we are] really happy for Aslan, because he was practising good in the ATP Cup. We felt like he could do something amazing,” Medvedev said. “To be honest, being in your first Grand Slam main draw and making the quarters is something exceptional. [His run is] not over yet. Let’s see how he does tomorrow.”
One Russian is guaranteed to reach the semi-finals because Medvedev and Rublev are playing each other, and two will make the last four in Melbourne if Karatsev upsets former World No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov. But this is not an aberration.
Medvedev at the 2019 US Open became the first Russian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final since Safin won the 2005 Australian Open. He then lifted the biggest trophy of his career at last year’s Nitto ATP Finals. Rublev led the ATP Tour with five crowns last season and he has stormed into the Top 10 of the FedEx ATP Rankings, making Russia the only country with two players in the elite group.
How does the generation these Russians are competing in compare to the challenges that confronted Kafelnikov and Safin two decades ago? Kafelnikov does not want to compare the two, feeling that’s unfair to all the players involved.
“It’s a million-dollar question and it’s hard for me to answer. We would probably say that we played in a way harder generation in terms of average level of player and they would say they played in the Big Three era when those guys won practically every Slam for the past 13, 14 years,” Kafelnikov said. “It’s almost unfair to draw the line between the generations. We all had our tough times playing against guys like Sampras, Agassi, Becker, Edberg, Kuerten, players like that. They would say they had a hard time playing against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. It’s understandable.”
Kafelnikov simply wants this group to shine, and he will be watching as Russia’s stars try to continue leaving their mark in Australia.
“I’m going to watch Karatsev play against Dimitrov and then on Wednesday I will watch the Rublev-Medvedev match,” Kafelnikov said. “I am very excited, but it’s not only me. All the fans in Russia are excited.”