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Israel’s loss: Ex-local is 1st debutant for 25 years in Australian Open quarters

Aslan Karatsev spent much of his youth in the Jewish state; Israel Tennis Association reportedly sought to have him play for Israel but he’d already signed up for Russia

Russian-Israeli Aslan Karatsev makes a forehand return to Argentina's Diego Schwartzman during their third round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia,  February 12, 2021.(Hamish Blair/AP)
Russian-Israeli Aslan Karatsev makes a forehand return to Argentina's Diego Schwartzman during their third round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, February 12, 2021.(Hamish Blair/AP)

Russian-Israeli tennis player Aslan Karatsev has stunned the sporting world in recent days, becoming the first player in 25 years to reach the Australian Open’s quarterfinals in his debut Grand Slam tournament.

Karatsev was a virtual unknown before the Melbourne tournament started, but he has defeated several giants.

On Sunday he stunned 20th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime by battling back from two sets down to upset the Canadian 3-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 at the Margaret Court Arena, setting up a quarterfinal clash Tuesday with 18th seeded Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. On Friday, he blitzed eighth seed Diego Schwartzmann in round three,

The 27-year-old Karatsev plays for Russia but grew up and trained in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew. However, he left the country at age 16, and recent days have seen the leaders of the Israel Tennis Association shaking their heads at their failure to identify his talent while he was here.

He was born in Vladikavkaz but his family moved to Israel when he was still a young boy, where he became an enthusiastic tennis player, according to the Hebrew-language One sports website. It was during this period that he first met, and played against, Amir Weintraub, who would go on to become a top Israeli professional tennis player.

Though he showed obvious potential, financial hardships kept Karatsev from advancing his natural talent and he eventually returned to Russia with his father. His mother and sister remained in Israel.

Since then Karatsev continued to train by himself, traveling to competitions around Europe but, until recently, without major success. When tennis tournaments restarted last August after a five-month break due to COVID-19, however, he won 18 of his last 20 ATP Challenger Tour matches, including two trophies, and now has taken that improved showing all the way into the Australian Open last eight.

About a year ago he visited Israel to settle some personal affairs, according to the One website. While training in Tel Aviv, Karatsev, who still has an Israeli passport, showed locals that in addition to his skills with the racquet he still speaks fluent Hebrew.

Russian-Israeli Aslan Karatsev hits a forehand to Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime during their fourth round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, February 14, 2021 (Andy Brownbill/AP)

In September, Weintraub approached the then-incoming chair of the Israel Tennis Association, Avi Peretz, about Karatsev and together they tried to convince him to play for Israel. However, Karatsev had already signed up for the Davis Cup as a Russian player and the moment was lost.

Ranked 114, Karatsev is the first Grand Slam debutant to reach the quarterfinals at a major since Romanian Alex Radulescu at Wimbledon in 1996 and only the seventh in the Open era.

“Amazing, amazing. It was a big win from 2-0 down and emotionally it was tough. It’s a good feeling,” Karatsev said as the moment sank in.

He is the first qualifier to achieve the feat since Australia’s Bernard Tomic at Wimbledon in 2011 and only the third at the Australian Open after Bob Giltinan in 1977 and Goran Ivanisevic in 1989.

“The match is long. You play best of five, so looks like it’s over, but I just kept playing every ball and focusing on the next ball.”

“You told me just now that I broke some records. Of course, it’s a good feeling,” he said. “But I try to more focus on the tournament, on the matches.”

The injury-dogged Karatsev has been on the verge of playing a Grand Slam for years, but on nine previous attempts, he lost in qualifying.

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