The fairytale run of Russian-Israeli qualifier Aslan Karatsev in the Australian Open came to an end in the semifinals Thursday with a defeat by world number one Novak Djokovic, who maintained his bid for a record-extending ninth title.
The 114th-ranked Karatsev 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.
Karatsev was 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.
His 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.