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Coach says he's got Top 20 hopes, but first will take break

‘Life will never be the same’ for ex-Israeli tennis star who lost to world No.1

Former ‘journeyman’ who captivated world tennis, Aslan Karatsev rises to 42 in world rankings, banks $850,000, as 1st debutant ever to reach Australian Open semifinals

Aslan Karatsev returns a shot against Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 18, 2021 (Peter Haskin / Australian Jewish News)
Aslan Karatsev returns a shot against Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 18, 2021 (Peter Haskin / Australian Jewish News)

Russian-Israeli qualifier Aslan Karatsev may have lost in the Australian Open semifinals Thursday, but he is being acclaimed for the way he played, he has soared to No. 42 in the world rankings, and he has earned $850,000 in prize money from the tournament.

Karatsev, the first debutant in history to make it to the semis of a Grand Slam, went down in straight sets to world number one Novak Djokovic in Melbourne. Karatsev, 27, was overwhelmed 6-3, 6-4 6-2 by the 33-year-old Serb who, showing no ill effects from an abdomen injury sustained in the third round, reached his 28th Grand Slam final.

“It’s given me more confidence — I’ve started to believe more,” Karatsev said of his run. The biggest thing he’s learned in Melbourne, he added, is “that I can play with everyone — to be there, to compete with everyone.”

Karatsev was also only the second qualifier to reach the Australian Open semifinals after Bob Giltinan in 1977. And he was the lowest-ranked man, at 114, to make the semis at a Slam since Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon in 2001 when ranked 125.

Aslan Karatsev (L) shakes hands with Novak Djokovic (R) at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 18, 2021 (Peter Haskin / Australian Jewish News)

After the game, his coach Yahur Yatsyuk said he had told Karatsev in the past that he was “capable of reaching Top 20 if he did all his work at the maximum.”

“We will then continue working with him, there are still details to work on,” Yatsyuk said. “We will be now playing at good tournaments and will keep progressing.”

“I am not saying that he will certainly continue winning at the Grand Slam tournaments, but he can reserve a place for himself in the Top 20,” Yatsyuk said. “He has the required potential, but he still needs to work hard daily.”

First, though, his coach said, Karatsev would be “taking a break now from tennis, because he was under a strain in the last two and a half months… It was not easy for him psychologically to achieve this success.”

Karatsev’s magical run included wins over eighth seed Diego Schwartzmann, 20th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime and 18th seed Grigor Dimitrov, but came up short against the ultimate test.

Aslan Karatsev in action against Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 18, 2021 (Peter Haskin / Australian Jewish News)

A Guardian report on Karatsev’s rise Thursday called it “one of the most fascinating stories of the past year. Before the tour hiatus last March due to the coronavirus outbreak, he was the definition of a journeyman. Ranked 263rd then, he had spent just one year of his nomadic life in the top 200. His pursuit of a meaningful career has taken him to different training bases, from his Russian hometown of Vladikavkaz to Israel, back to various parts of Russia, Germany, Spain, and now Belarus.”

But the report noted, when tennis resumed late last summer, Karatsev “immediately began a startling run across the European clay court challenger events, winning 20 of 21 matches and rising to his [pre-Melbourne] current ranking of 114. A modest grand slam run, particularly on the clay courts of Roland Garros, looked a possibility but his presence in the final four here is unprecedented. No male player in the open era had ever reached a slam semi-final on his debut; he has done so at the age of 27, after already spending so much of his life elsewhere.”

A wary Djokovic had predicted Karatsev would come out aggressively and he proved right, with the underdog undaunted in a free-wheeling approach.

The Russian-Israeli qualifier was close for the first seven games and staged a comeback from 5-1 down in the second set, but otherwise Djokovic was in command.

Aslan Karatsev waves as he leaves Rod Laver Arena after losing his semifinal to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 18, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

The top-ranked Djokovic is 8-0 in his previous trips to the final at Melbourne Park. He is also unbeaten in all nine semifinals he has contested in Australia.

Karatsev plays for Russia but grew up and trained in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew. He left the country as a youth, and recent days have seen the leaders of the Israel Tennis Association shaking their heads at their failure to identify and nurture his talent.

From now on, the Guardian report noted, “Karatsev’s life will never be the same; his new world ranking of No 42 will allow him entry into all of the ATP tournaments he pleases. The $850,000 prize money this week is more than he had scraped together in the past decade of competition, and he will likely have more shots at Djokovic and his rivals in the near future.”

Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning the second set against Aslan Karatsev during their semifinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 18, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

Interviewed after his quarterfinal win Tuesday, Karatsev was asked about his background, including his Jewish heritage and his years in Israel.

“Your family are Russian Jews?” he was asked. “Yes,” he said, “my grandfather from my mom’s side, yes.”

Karatsev was born in Vladikavkaz, Russia, but “I moved to Israel when I was three years old with my family and then I started to practice there, in Tel Aviv-Jaffa,” he said Tuesday. “I grew up there, practicing there until 12 years old, and then I moved back to Russia with my father. Then I was living in Rostov… I was practicing there until 18 years old, then I started practicing in Moscow.”

He subsequently moved to Halle, in Germany, and then to Barcelona, and for the past three years has been training with coach Yatsyk in Minsk, Belarus, he said.

Amir Weintraub (Howard Blas/Times of Israel)

As a young, enthusiastic player in Israel, he met and played against Amir Weintraub, who would go on to become a top Israeli professional tennis player (with a highest world ranking of 161), according to the Hebrew-language One sports website. Though he showed obvious potential, financial hardships kept Karatsev from advancing his natural talent, the site said, and he eventually returned to Russia with his father. His mother and sister remained in Israel.

In recent years, Karatsev has been traveling to competitions around Europe but, until recently, without major success.

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.

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.

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