Russian-Israeli Aslan Karatsev continued his remarkable season by winning his first ATP Tour title on Saturday, beating Lloyd Harris in the Dubai final.
The 27-year-old, who became the first man to reach the semi-finals on their Grand Slam debut in the Open era at the Australian Open last month, cruised past South African Harris 6-3, 6-2.
“You never know when [success] is coming,” said Karatsev, who was the first wildcard to win the Dubai title since Thomas Muster in 1997. “I did a good job with my team, with my coach and it has happened now,” he said.
It was his first ATP singles final, after he won an event for the first time on tour in last week’s doubles tournament in Doha, alongside Russian compatriot Andrey Rublev.
Karatsev plays for Russia but grew up and trained in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew. He left Israel as a youth, and recent weeks have seen the leaders of the Israel Tennis Association shaking their heads at their failure to identify and nurture his talent.
Interviewed last month at the Australian Open, 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. “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.
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.
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.