Melbourne, Feb 16 (AFP): Men’s tennis has been dominated by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic since Marat Safin was the last Russian man to lift a Grand Slam trophy at the 2005 Australian Open.
But as the Big Three era draws inexorably to a close, it looks like Russia, led by world number four Daniil Medvedev and eighth-ranked Andrey Rublev, could take over at the top.
Russia’s men have dominated the fledgling 2021 season, winning the ATP Cup, and will provide two of the semi-finalists at the Australian Open after qualifier Aslan Karatsev, ranked 114, continued his fairytale run by beating Grigor Dimitrov on Tuesday.
Karatsev is the first Slam debutant to reach a semi-final since the Open era began in 1968 and will be joined in the last four by either Medvedev or Rublev, who contest a quarter-final Wednesday.
Even if no Russian goes on to lift the title on Sunday, a former world number one is certain that the wait for his country to crown a men’s Grand Slam champion will soon come to an end.
“We all know that it’s inevitable that they’re going to win a Slam,” Yevgeny Kafelnikov told ATPTour.com from his home in Sochi. “It’s a question of when and where.”
Kafelnikov was the first Russian man to win a Grand Slam singles championship, at Roland Garros in 1996, and he also won the Australian Open in 1999.
‘A big surprise’
“It was really expected that two of them (Medvedev, Rublev) got to where they are,” he said.
“The third one (Karatsev) is a big surprise, but a very happy surprise,” added Kafelnikov, who won 53 Tour-level titles.
Russian players have started the year in unrivalled form. Both Medvedev and Rublev went unbeaten in the ATP Cup, with the former naming Karatsev as the team’s “secret weapon” on their run to the trophy.
Runner-up at the 2019 US Open, his best major showing to date, Medvedev has an 18-match winning streak that includes last year’s Paris Masters and ATP Tour Finals tournament victories.
Rublev, aged 23, is playing the best tennis of his life and won five Tour-level titles in 2020, more than any other player.
Karatsev, 27, has scattered higher-ranked players to all parts in his remarkable run as a qualifier at his maiden Grand Slam event, including a straight-sets, third-round demolition of eighth seed Diego Schwartzmann in less than two hours.
‘Greatest in history’
There can be little doubt after this Australian Open that the Russians are coming.
But Medvedev cautioned that winning even one Slam is hard; even more so while the Big Three are still around.
“It is amazing because I’m 25, I’m playing good tennis. I feel like I’m one of the top players in the world,” said Medvedev.
“I have zero Slams.”
Federer and Nadal both have 20 Grand Slam titles, while Djokovic has 17, totals that are hard to comprehend for Russia’s top player.
“Imagine me getting to 20 Grand Slam titles,” Medvedev said after reaching the quarter-finals with a straight-sets win over American Mackenzie McDonald.
“I need to win five years in a row every Slam. And Roland Garros I’m not so good so far,” smiled Medvedev, who is yet to win a match at the French Open.
“Five years, every Slam, against amazing opponents, playing five-set matches – and not be injured. That’s ridiculous numbers.
“For me, they’re the three, for sure, greatest players in the history of tennis.”
Nevertheless, Russia is the only nation with two players ranked in the world’s top 10.
The 24-year-old Karen Khachanov makes it three in the top 20, while the emergence of Karatsev further demonstrates Russia’s strength.
Kafelnikov, watching from his home in Sochi, said that Russian children have a new set of heroes in Medvedev, Rublev, Khachanov, and Karatsev.
And that means mums and dads will support their kids’ ambitions.
“It’s a great example for the parents who at one stage want to have their kids be on the same level,” Kafelnikov said.
“It’s definitely giving them that kind of opportunity like I did with Marat back in the 1990s and early 2000s.”