“This is for all the lonely people
Thinkin’ that life has passed them by
Don’t give up until you drink from the silver cup
And ride that highway in the sky”
It was a wonder.
In 2016, Marcus Willis, an unknown London teaching pro, came through the Wimbledon qualifying and won a round before he suffered a glorious defeat to Roger Federer. The tennis world went crazy. Just last October, Iga Swiatek, an anonymous 19-year-old Pole, sprinted to the French Open title. Tennis enthusiasts were stunned.
But, just maybe, there’s never been an out of nowhere tennis result quite like the emergence of the ultimate tennis journeyman, Aslan Karatsev, who today came from behind to beat Grigor Dimitrov, becoming the lowest ranked player since Pat McEnroe in 1991 to reach the semifinal of a Grand Slam. The compact Russian with a devastating forehand became everyone’s hero, the embodiment of crazy dreams of one day making it on Broadway or grabbing an Oscar.
Incredibly, when Pat McEnroe made his run to the Melbourne semis 30 years ago, he like Aslan was ranked No. 114. And some 10,415 miles away in a Connecticut TV studio, Pat shared the unlikely itinerary of tennis’ ultimate “Mr. Nobody.” At age three Aslan left Vladikavkaz, Russia for Israel and trained as a boy at a small seaside club before returning to Russia and then traveling to Halle, Germany, Barcelona, Spain and eventually to Minsk, Belarus to learn his craft.
Certainly, as he tried to survive the gulag that is tennis’ Darwinian minor leagues, he must have muttered a million times, “I coulda been a contender.” But like hundreds – no, make that tens of thousands – of others, he never broke through. But after recovering from a serious knee injury in 2017, he finally clicked with a coach in 2019. Young Yahor Yatsyk, a 28-year old Belarusian, improved his mindset and kept him going. Still, before the COVID shutdown he was only ranked No. 263. But damn the pandemic – full speed ahead. Karatsev is a Russian. And never forget that Svetlana Kuznetsova once told us that her countrymen fought World War II with knives. They’re tough. And Aslan’s name does mean lion.
So Karatsev battled on through the COVID shutdown. His ranking rose. He played through the Australian qualifying and sprinted through his last two matches. Nine times before, he’d tried to get to the big show – a tennis Grand Slam. He’d met nothing but futility. He only had three tour wins in his career he finally made it to the Australian Open. In Melbourne he swept through the first two rounds without losing a set. Few cared – he remained lost in the crowd.
But when he blew Diego Schwartzman – the Italian Open finalist and No. 8 seed – off the court, some took note of his rock solid power and focused mindset. The man who just a week ago was hanging out with his Russian compatriots in the ATP Cup was now hanging in there with the best in the world. Daniil Medvedev had called him “Russia’s secret weapon,” but his skills were hardly a secret to Felix Auger-Aliassime. After winning the first two sets of their fourth round match, the No. 20 seed’s commanding lead melted like a Canadian snowfield in spring.
Now in the quarterfinals Karatsev would certainly wake up to reality. Veteran Grigor Dimitrov, armed with one of the sweetest backhands in the game, had just dismissed world No. 3 Dominic Thiem and was poised to reach his fourth Grand Slam semi. Commentator John McEnroe wondered how to pronounce the Russian’s name. He joked, “Better late than never,” and asked dismissively, “Why so long?” Mac said Karatsev was “‘the Jeremy Lin of tennis.” The Russian dreamer did break serve early, but promptly lost six games in a row. Sensibility returned to the sport of tennis. But obviously Karatsev is a master of hanging in there, and as Auger-Aliassime could tell you, he knows a thing or two about coming back.
The Russian stopped rushing his shots, cut down on his errors and powered through the next two sets, as it became increasingly clear that Dimitrov, like so many others in Melbourne, was injured. The Bulgarian, who could barely put on his socks before the match, now was hobbled by serious back spasms. A little time off court for medical assistance after the third set helped a little, but not much.
Aslan used his impressive groundies and gritty experience, and resisted being distracted by his foe’s woes as he hit nine aces and 34 winners to march to one of the most stunning victories in our sport. Soon a reporter bluntly asked: “Who are you and where did you come from?”
Aslan was the first qualifier to reach the Aussie Open semis since 1977 and just the fifth qualifier to reach the semis of a Slam. While he was No. 114 in the world as the tourney began, he will now rise to No. 42. In 477 previous matches he’d only won $618,000. Now he was assured of a $645,000 payday.
But the real payoff was what the man who seemed to be emblematic of every lonely toiler stuck on the night shift brought to the world of sport, the feel-good notion that, someday, hard, anonymous labor just might pay off with a glory that redeems and justifies.