He won more ATP events than anyone else in 2020 and inevitably fills the shadows of one of his own countrymen when listing the contenders at the majors. Simply put, however, 23-year-old Andrey Rublev is making his own mark on the men’s game.
The Russian’s stellar season last year – winning the same number of matches as Novak Djokovic (40) and claiming titles either side of the pandemic shutdown – came after he overcame two injuries that curtailed his impact through 2018 and 2019. A lower back stress fracture and wrist stress fracture, which he said “took a long time for the bone to heal back”, are behind him.
Russian Andrey Rublev is one to watch at the upcoming ATP Cup and Australian Open. Credit:AP
Slightly-built and boasting a vicious forehand, Rublev sits in the world’s top 10 after his Doha, Adelaide, Hamburg, St Petersburg and Vienna titles. Top eight finishes at the two majors held late in 2020, the US and French Opens, enhance his form-line. He won the ATP’s Most Improved Player of the Year award.
A strong work ethic off the court, something he said he relied upon throughout the shutdown, is continuing to pay dividends.
“I was working a lot. My team did a great job,” said Rublev, from his quarantine stint in Melbourne.
“I was struggling a lot with injuries and some stress outside the court, but always I was working hard. So in the end I start to take out the stress from the outside the court – I start to feel more comfortable and you start to feel more comfortable, everything transfers to the game.“
Rublev said the period when tennis resumed after the coronavirus-enforced hiatus – a spectator-free US Open the symbol of its return – was rejuvenating. After the myriad frustrations of lockdown, he could again play “in the moment” on the court.
“As soon as I was able to play tennis … it was like a fresh air. Because as soon as I was going on-court to play, I was disconnecting from all the situation in the world, from all the pandemic,” he said. “I was like in the moment playing tennis on-court. It was really helping me.”
Rublev was introduced to the sport by his mother.
“My Mum was, still is, a tennis coach,” Rublev said.
“When I was really, really, really small she was taking me with her on-court. Even when I was not able to walk I was there with her. Maybe I was there in this baby-seat sleeping and she was playing [teaching] with the kids.”
Andrey Rublev throws his racquet during the French Open men’s singles quarterfinals. Credit:Getty Images
Rublev is now Russia’s second best player behind world No.4 and 2019 US Open finalist Danii Medvedev.
Medvedev and Rublev will spearhead the Russian team at next week’s ATP Cup teams event at Melbourne Park, as the top seeds in group D, and have drawn against Argentina and Japan. They should progress beyond the group stage, and could even push last year’s first and second-placed nations, Serbia and Spain, for favouritism.
Russia is enjoying fruitful times among its men’s fraternity, a throwback to a generation ago when Yevgeny Kafelnikov and then Marat Safin were among the world’s best. Australians won’t need reminding that it was Safin who defeated Lleyton Hewitt in the Australian Open final 16 years ago, a triumph that gave the powerful Russian his second major.
Thus Safin was a childhood hero of Rublev’s. Safin’s charge to the 2005 title, including a classic semi-final win over Roger Federer, is one he clearly remembers.
“Of course,” Rublev said. “That was a big thing in Russia at the time.
“I remember the match against Federer. My parents were watching live that day, at night, but I was in bed. I hear them screaming!”
Fortunately a friendlier time difference allowed young Rublev to watch, in real time, Safin’s next match win against Hewitt in the final.
Rublev takes a philosophical stance on the current predicament of the tennis fraternity, forced into deep quarantine in Melbourne as part of the ambitious push to keep the sport going and prevent the Australian Open from being cancelled.
“In our case no one forced us to come, or not to come. It was our decisions. I think we’re really lucky [that], even in these conditions, we’re still able to play,” he said.
“In my case I can only be grateful for this, that I’m still able to do my work in such a tough situation because I have so many friends, so many people that I know that lost the job, and they cannot find even one job.”
Like the majority of his colleagues, he’s fully up to speed on what Australians – and Victorians in particular – have experienced to ensure the country’s record with COVID-19.
“I knew from the beginning the rules were going to be really serious here because I understand the situation in Australia. I know how people were sacrificing last year, I think the lockdown in Australia was something like half [a] year,” Rublev said.
As for what Rublev is capable of in the coming weeks, he is maintaining a steady approach. Firstly, he’s delighted that Medvedev is an ATP Cup teammate.
”I’m really looking positive. I was really missing tennis, I was really missing competition, I was really missing spectators, so I’m really excited,” he said.
“I just want to try and enjoy the moment. I want to try to do my best. We’ll see what’s going to happen.”
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