In 2021, Aslan Karatsev arrived at Melbourne Park as a qualifier, a relatively little-known player to everyone except those who closely follow the Challenger circuit.
Yet the Russian’s unlikely run to the semifinals ensured any lingering anonymity was gone forever – and set him on his path towards the world’s top 20.
Then aged 27, this was a late-career surge, but signs of Karatsev’s improvement were already apparent in 2020.
When professional tennis resumed in August that year after a five-month pandemic-related suspension, Karatsev won 17 of his first 18 matches, a run that saw him win two ATP Challenger titles from three finals.
These results boosted his ranking by almost 150 places in less than a month, setting the stage for his breakout 2021 season.
But at this point he was still ranked outside the top 100, making his eventual ascent to world No.15 in November all the more incredible.
We begin charting his rise at Australian Open 2021, where the world discovered an athletic mover with electrifying power and ball-striking ability.
16 February 2021: Qualifies for Australian Open, then advances to SF
Stretched to three sets in his first-round qualifying win over Brandon Nakashima, Karatsev dominated his second and third matches, dropping just three games in each to qualify for a Grand Slam main draw for the first time. Once there, he continued to thrive; he struck 50 winners past world No.9 Diego Schwartzman in a third-round demolition, then beat Felix Auger-Aliassime and Grigor Dimitrov to become the first qualifier in more than 20 years to reach a major semifinal. Eventual champion Novak Djokovic ended his run, but Karatsev had announced himself to the tennis world in a resounding way.
(Rankings rise after Australian Open: +72 to world No.42)
21 March 2021: Wins first career ATP title in Dubai
Karatsev took his momentum into the Middle East swing; after pushing Dominic Thiem to three sets in a last-16 loss in Doha, he headed to Dubai and began carving his way through the field. He beat a succession of seeded opponents – Dan Evans, Lorenzo Sonego and Jannik Sinner – to set up a semifinal with eighth-ranked Andrey Rublev, who he upset in three sets for the then-biggest win of his career. Facing qualifier Lloyd Harris in the final, Karatsev dropped just five games in his most comfortable victory of the week, breaking through for a maiden ATP title.
(Rankings move after Dubai: +15 to world No.27)
25 April 2021: Stuns Djokovic to reach Belgrade final
Karatsev had so far enjoyed all of his 2021 success on hard courts, but experienced few troubles when the tour transitioned to clay. In his second clay-court event, he won through to the semifinals in Belgrade, where world No.1 Djokovic awaited at his home event. The Russian then pulled off one of the upsets of the season, beating Djokovic 7-5 4-6 6-4 in a career-best win. He then fell to Matteo Berrettini in the final, but not before pushing the Italian to a final-set tiebreak. By this point in the season, Karatsev’s win-loss record was already a sparkling 20-5.
(Rankings rise after Belgrade: +1 to world No.27)
3 September 2021: Progresses to third round of US Open
After reaching the last 16 at both the Madrid and Rome Masters, Karatsev plateaued, failing to win back-to-back matches in almost four months. But his form enjoyed an upswing again on North American hard courts; he saved match points to beat Jordan Thompson in the second round of the US Open and was a set away from the fourth round before falling to breakthrough star Jenson Brooksby in five. This result set the tone for what was to come in the United States.
(Rankings rise after US Open: remains at world No.25)
12 October 2021: Upsets Shapovalov to reach last 16 at Indian Wells
Karatsev’s 7-5 6-2 win over Denis Shapovalov sent him through to the fourth round at Indian Wells, and meant he had won four of his last five matches when factoring in his last-eight appearance at San Diego the week prior. That San Diego result – his first tournament quarterfinal since Belgrade in April – was cemented by an upset win over 12th-ranked Hubert Hurkacz, who ultimately stopped him at Indian Wells.
(Rankings rise after Indian Wells: +1 to world No.22)
25 October 2021: Wins second career title in Moscow, cracks top 20
Karatsev returned home with some momentum, and promptly stormed through four matches in straight sets to claim the Kremlin Cup, his second career ATP title. The Russian beat three former top-10 players in a row – Gilles Simon, Karen Khachanov and Marin Cilic – to claim the trophy in his third final of the season. “It is a dream come true,” said Karatsev, who made his top-20 debut with the triumph. “It is a tournament where I have played in qualifying at and now I am winning the tournament.”
(Rankings rise after Moscow: +3 to world No.19)