You probably hadn’t heard of the name Aslan Karatsev two weeks ago, yet now the Russian will face either Novak Djokovic or Alexander Zverev for a place in the Australian Open final. What makes this achievement so fascinating is that Karatsev is a 27-year-old who has never even troubled the top 100, with his peak ranking of 111th coming in November 2020. In fact, this time last year, his ATP ranking wasn’t even high enough to get him into the first qualifying round of the very tournament he now finds himself in the final four of.
The Russian looked destined to play out the rest of his career without even playing in a Grand Slam tournament, having failed in the qualifying stages of every one of his previous nine attempts. Then came this year’s Australian Open.
Having come through three rounds of qualifying in Doha just to make the main draw for the first time in his career, he has gone on a simply outstanding run to become the first man to reach the semi-finals in his maiden Grand Slam. The financial benefits are also huge. Across his entire career to date, playing in second-tier events all over the world, he has earned just over $600,000. For reaching the semi-finals he has earned himself a guaranteed $660,000, a figure that will double if he manages to make the final.
The first qualifier to reach an Australian Open semi-final since 1977 is finally living the dream, but it has been a long road to reach this stage. Having moved away from Russia as a baby and lived in Israel from the age of three to 11, he then began his tennis career upon his return to Russia, finding a trainer in former player Dmitry Tursunov.
A well-travelled man, Karatsev now spends most of his time training in Minsk, Belarus but his Portuguese fitness coach Luis Lopes is based in Doha, Qatar. Lopes video calls Karatsev for every training session while he is still in the Australian Open, even though he is having to set his alarm in the middle of the night given the time difference!
Karatsev’s odds to win the tournament have shortened from highs of 2000/1 to 22/1 with Betfred, and his journey to the final four has been impressive to say the least. In the first round proper he disposed of Gianluca Mager in straight sets before blitzing Egor Gerasimov in the next round, losing only one game in a truly dominant display.
The third round beckoned, but with eighth seed Diego Schwartzman lying in wait many presumed the Russian’s journey would come to a respectable end. However, Karatsev put in the finest performance of his career to overcome the German 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, making it through to round four without dropping a set. This was the first time in his career he had beaten anybody ranked in the top 40, but he would repeat the feat in the following round.
Up against Felix Auger-Aliassime, Karatsev quickly found himself two sets down and staring at the exit door, but his super-aggressive attacking style allows him to pile pressure onto opponents. And while that makes him a streaky competitor, capable of getting stuck in a rut, he dug in and turned the tide against the Canadian, managing to win a five-set thriller.
In the first five-set match of his career, he had secured a comeback win many greats would have been proud of.
"Of course, I'm really surprised that I'm here. I'm just going to keep playing each match!" he told reporters after beating Auger-Aliassime, keen to ensure he takes everything in his stride.
Having lost the first set of his quarter-final to Grigor Dimitrov, he came back to win with ease as the Bulgarian suffered a back injury which limited his movement. But still, the debutant was thrilled to make the semi-finals, where he will face the toughest opponent of his entire career: “It’s an unbelievable feeling, first time main draw, first time semis.”
A record-breaker and a true underdog, Karatsev will have a whole host of new fans tuning in for his semi-final on Thursday. He couldn’t make the final though… Could he?