Russia’s Top Secret Explodes

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

RUSSIA’S SECRET WEAPON REVEALED: Tennis is just a game, not a war. Still, allow us to note that for 75 years America’s prime ongoing fear was that mighty Russia would someday unleash a secret weapon on us. So, way back when, kids ducked under their school desks. Planes dropped food into blockaded Berlin. During a missile crisis we issued a diplomatic bluff that saved us from a nuclear meltdown and then signed (and unsigned) treaties. Still, Russia didn’t unleash a single secret weapon.

Well, enter Aslan Karatsev, the supersonic player in Melbourne that Russians have dubbed “our secret weapon.”

Tea-leaf watchers know the long history of Russian politics and tennis. Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the former Soviet leader, told Chris Evert, “Tennis will bring our people together.” Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin was an avid tennis enthusiast whose game was featured on 60 Minutes. Once he told the struggling Elena Dementieva, “Improve your serve.” More recently, Putin became buddies with Maria Sharapova during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Hall of Famer Marat Safin became a member of Russia’s Duma, while Russia’s first great male tennis star, Yvegeny Kafelnikov, became a Putin critic. Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky was harshly critical of Putin and his oligarchs, who took over portions of his homeland.

Russian men’s tennis is relishing in its greatest generation ever. The bookies favor Daniil Medvedev, No. 4, to win the Aussie Open. Andrey Rublev won (along with Novak Djokovic) a record 41 matches last year. Karen Khachanov is No. 20.

But who knew of this guy Karatsev? The journeyman became a part of their ATP Cup team that just won the title. The 27-year- old, who has long battled in obscure Challenger tourneys, was only No. 263 when tennis shut down last March. But during the pandemic he battled on. He beat Brandon Nakashima in the Aussie Open qualifying and arrived in Melbourne as No. 114. In the third round he downed the considerable Italian Open finalist and No. 8 seed Diego Schwartzman.

In the fourth round, he lost the first two sets to Felix Auger-Aliassime, but battled back to become the first qualifier to reach the Aussie Open quarters in 25 years. Now for the first time in history three Russians – Medvedev, Rublev and Karatsev, will reach the quarters of a Slam. Since 2009 Aslan has played 477 matches and won $618,000. In Melbourne he played four matches and has earned $618,000. He’s the lowest ranked man to reach the quarters since Pat McEnroe in 1991. Karatsev had failed nine times to qualify to play in a major.

Aslan, who next faces Grigor Dimitrov, recalled his journey: “This is unbelievable…I’ve had a lot of worries over the past few years so I am relieved, overjoyed to be at this stage. It took me two sets to find a way to play [against Aliassime]. I try to play a more aggressive style, like going for a big serve. I try to work the point as short as I can…try not to run behind the baseline…[but rather] try to stay close to the line.”

Now the Moscow man who likes to play close to the line is no longer under the radar. In fact, he’s now Russia’s worst kept tennis secret.

THE GLORY OF THE WOMEN’S GAME: Many have been concerned about what will happen to the WTA once Serena and Venus leave the game. Now there should be few worries. Sunday’s play in Melbourne gave us three scintillating struggles featuring appealing players. Simona Halep avenged a bitter loss in Paris to the rising Pole, Iga Swiatek, who went on to win the Roland Garros crown.

Two-time Slam champ Garbine Muguruza (who is yet to win a hardcourt major) seemed in control as she took the first set over Naomi Osaka. But the Japanese-Haitian star, who lives in Los Angeles, is an extraordinary big-match performer who’s won three of the last five hardcourt majors. At crunch time she delivers her deep, well-placed power groundies with a calm, almost eerie serenity. Her uncanny effectiveness is one of the great weapons in modern tennis. Deep into the third set, Muguruza, who had trained in the off season with the Spanish Civil Guard, was poised for a fine, civil upset and had two match points.

But Garbine let down her guard. Gradually the Spaniard seemed tight and lost. The former French and Wimbledon champ suffered key double faults, and her forehand didn’t deliver. Osaka prevailed 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. Every time she’s reached a Slam quarterfinal she’s gone on to win the tourney.

Speaking of winners, Serena powered her way into her record 54th Grand Slam quarterfinal – but not before much drama and a hint of trauma. With Serena (who was nearly bounced out in the third round by a Russian kid), there almost always is. Has any other athlete over the past three decades given us more theatrics?

Many thought yesterday’s match would be Williams’ first serious test. Aryna Sabalenka recently has been the hottest player on the WTA tour. The Belarusian uses her broad shoulders to deliver an imposing power game. Her backhand punishes. The 22-year old is on the edge of stardom. Soon we’ll probably see her lifting Slam trophies.

But in the first set against the American, whom she idolized as a child, Aryna showed why she’s never reached a Slam quarterfinal. Serena moved incredibly well, played astonishing defense and scored a tight 6-4 first-set win. But then Sabalenka relaxed, uncorked incredible backhands, running Serena from corner to corner and taking advantage when Serena’s serve dipped terribly. Aryna won the second set. But then the more experienced, slightly faster Serena showed why she’s Serena. She saved two critical break points, gained from Ayrna’s loose play, and went up 3-1. “Serena’s hunger is still there – in spades,” said one commentator. Sabalenka fought back boldly and evened the match at 4-4.

But in the end a critical double fault and errant groundies gave the match to Williams. Later Serena revealed her self-talk at crunch time: “One shot here, one shot there – Serena, you just got to keep going…C’mon, Serena you can do this!” The movie we saw was the same one we’ve marveled at so often. It’s a great show. The befuddled Serena is taken to the brink. But somehow the Queen morphs her intense athleticism, her powerful skills and her stormy will into yet another triumph – “no problemo,” folks.

To many, the only disappointing aspect of Serena’s Valentine Day’s performance was that as a Jehovah’s Witness, she doesn’t celebrate Valentine’s day. But she does celebrate victories. Her win prompted Luke Jensen to note, “She showed so much poise. I truly believe she’s finding another level of emotional commitment to the battle. She’s finding ways to win without putting out all this energy or putting pressure on herself.”

POWER POINT: A reporter asked Serena to compare the power of Aryna Sabalenka to the power she’s faced from others like Lindsay Davenport and Kim Clijsters. Usually Serena responds to such questions by referring to Venus. This time Serena noted, “I don’t know anyone that hit harder than Lindsay, to be honest. She was the most powerful player I’ve ever played.” As for Sabalenka’s power, Serena said, “It was good. It was definitely a lot of power…but I’m used to it in practice…I was okay with it really. If she wants to play power, let’s go.”

THE MAGICIAN: Hsieh Su-wei is the WTA’s answer to “the Magician” – the now retired Fabrice Santoro. The enchanting Tawianese veteran uses severe angles, inventive hits, intuitive flat strokes and gentle winners to bring down foes who are used to bash-and-boom blasts.

Just as Santoro did, Hsieh has reached the Aussie Open quarterfinals, where she’ll face Naomi Osaka. At 35, she’s the oldest player ever to reach her maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal. Osaka has a 3-1 record against her. Their battle promises to be an appealing power vs. finesse match-up.

ARE YOU OKAY? After Grigor Dimitrov’s stunning 6-4, 6-4, 6-0 victory over US Open Champion Dominic Thiem, John McEnroe said, “I can’t imagine this coming. It’s a beatdown. This was like Dominic was in another country.” Both Dimitrov and Thiem, who are good friends, seemed stunned after the Bulgarian’s shock upset. At the net Grigor asked his pal, “Are you okay?’

ROCK COMMENTARY OF THE DAY: Commentator Jason Goodall said, “If Aryna Sabalenka was a rock band she’d be like Spinal Tap, because she turns everything to an 11.”

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