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'My grandfather from my mom's side' was Jewish, he says

Russian-Israeli reaches Australian Open semifinals in fairytale Grand Slam debut

First Grand Slam debutant ever to reach semis, Aslan Karatsev will now face world No. 1 Novak Djokovic; Israel said to have failed to spot his talent

Aslan Karatsev celebrates after defeating Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov in their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 16, 2021.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)
Aslan Karatsev celebrates after defeating Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov in their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 16, 2021.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

Russian-Israeli tennis player Aslan Karatsev extended his extraordinary Australian Open run on Tuesday, becoming the first man to reach a Grand Slam semifinal on debut.

Karatsev, the world number 114, beat a hobbling Grigor Dimitrov 2-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.

The 27-year-old has now knocked out three seeds on his run to the final four, and faces world number one Novak Djokovic in the semifinals.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Karatsev, whose career had hitherto been badly compromised by injury.

Aslan Karatsev hits a backhand return to Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov during their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 16, 2021.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

“It was tough at the beginning for me to hold my nerves, but I tried to find a way to play,” he said.

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

After a five-setter with Felix Auger-Aliassime in round four, Karatsev had an easier ride against Dimitrov, who was wincing with pain from the third set.

Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov hits a forehand return to Russia’s Aslan Karatsev during their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 16, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

The Bulgarian 18th seed, who was barely able to serve, took a medical timeout after the third set but his movement was always hampered and he limped off the court after Karatsev’s win.

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.

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 Yahor 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. 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.

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.

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