Mental gains key to Karatsev breakthrough

  • Alex Sharp

Talk about making an impact.

Prior to this week, Russia’s Aslan Karatsev had not featured in a Grand Slam main draw.

Now the qualifier has blazed through three rounds into the second week at Melbourne Park.

The 27-year-old has been rewarded for his patience and endeavour throughout the years, becoming just the 15th qualifier to reach the men’s last 16 on debut at the Australian Open.

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Karatsev has been in devastating form thus far, dropping just 20 games. He fired 50 winners past world No.9 Diego Schwartzman on Friday to book his fourth round against Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime. 

The Russian has always held the belief he can perform on this stage, hailing work off the court for his remarkable rise.

“I always felt I had the game,” he told ausopen.com, knowing he’ll enter the Top 100 after this fortnight. “But it was more the mental part that I had to improve. I'm not saying that we didn't work on the game, but mostly targeting the mental part. Like how you behave, and how you play every point, how you prepare yourself for the next point.

"I had coaches in the past that were saying like, ‘everything in your head,’ a lot of talking like, ‘you have to improve your mental part.’ It's easy to say, you have to improve your mental part. But the tough thing is how you can do it, how you manage it. So, I found a coach that we manage it together and it works. How you're gonna improve it - this is the key.”

It’s been quite the journey for the Minsk resident, who has fallen in nine previous attempts to qualify for majors.

His 2016 and 2017 seasons were decimated by injuries. 

The world No.114 took drastic action, changing coaches two years ago, moving to Belarus and then locked in for some serious hard work.

“It was a long road. The last three years I’ve been working really hard. we steadily improved day by day,” reflected Karatsev, who was outside the Top 250 prior to the global pandemic.

When tennis returned last August, the Russian was raring to go, clinching 15 victories in his next 16 matches (including two Challenger titles). Only three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka halted his progress. 

Over to Roland-Garros and the world No.114 was denied a main draw ticket by Sebastian Korda, who navigated through to the fourth round in Paris. Could Karatsev match that achievement on Sunday?

“It’s been building, I had a lot of confidence from two challenger titles after the lockdown, worked hard in pre-season, played well in Doha for the qualies. I think it was just about timing. I’m playing well and I have a lot of confidence.

“We say OK let's play every match, every point, and then we see what happens.”

The 27-year-old was part of Russia’s ATP Cup title winning side last week, with one doubles outing, embracing the team aspect and observing the quality of teammates Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev. 

“The ATP Cup also gave me a lot of confidence, seeing how those young guys played and prepared.”

During Sunday’s trophy presentation world No.4 Medvedev took to the microphone and singled out his compatriot Karatsev as a “secret weapon” for the Russian ranks. The 27-year-old wasn’t required in singles play, but they knew he was in fine fettle.

Three standout wins already, Karatsev certainly isn’t a secret now.