It was in Australia last year that the formidable figure of Aslan Karatsev burst into the public consciousness with a semi-final run to the Open’s semi-final via qualifying and a ranking of 114.
It was a launch-pad that took the Russian to the top 20 with his first titles in Dubai and Moscow, and it all earned him the ATP Award for Most Improved Player of 2021.
His start to 2022 was far from ideal, hit by a Covid infection and unable to play the ATP Cup in Sydney. But he now was fit to top the seeds in the Sydney Classic this week, and headed to the semis.
It was also in Australia last year that Dan Evans won his first career title in Melbourne and, back in 2017, reached his first final in Sydney. Now playing as 26 in the world, his form flourished again Down Under, winning all three singles and both doubles matches in the ATP Cup. Now, he too was into the semis of the Sydney Tennis Classic.
Should he win, he would set up something special for British fans. He would play Andy Murray in the final, the first all-British tour-level men’s final of the Open era, and their first tour match against each, though both are now in their 30s.
Karatsev had played and beaten Evans only once, in Dubai last February, and it reflected the fine form of both men—a close three-setter. The circumstances on a humid Sydney night were not dissimilar, and the scoreline would only confirm just how closely matched they are, and what vibrant tennis each can produce.
Karatsev stormed to an early lead, 5-1, but the seventh game brought a string of stunning rallies, and a string of break chances for Evans as he slotted winners down the line after some leg-draining drop-shots from the Russian. The Briton finally converted to get one of those breaks back, 2-5, but he could not do it again. Karatsev served out the set with ease, 6-3, after notching up no fewer than 10 backhand winners in the set.
Evans was certainly not playing poorly, and had made only three errors, but the pace, penetration and variety of the Russian was reminiscent of his tennis this time last year.
However, Evans was going from strength to strength in this match. He opened with a love hold in the second set, but by the time they reached 5-5, neither had worked a single break chance.
Karatsev pressured Evans through five deuces and almost 10 minutes in the 11th game, while Evans grew visibly frustrated at having control wrenched from his racket by such well-directed power on both wings—plus plenty of touch around the net. But the Briton saved break point and held with a timely drop-shot.
A Russian ace took the match to a tie-break, and although a double fault from Karatsev gave the first advantage, a cruel net cord handed it back. Another gruelling exchange eventually brought up match point for the Russian, saved by a great volley finish from Evans. The Briton saved a second and a third, too, 8-8, and finally got a second chance for the set, on serve—only to suffer another vicious net-cord winner.
At last, the net-cord went Evans’s way for another set point, and at the sixth time of asking, the Briton levelled to take the hour and a half set, 7-6(13).
But now the down side of Evans’ intense emotions broke out as Karatsev took advantage of the new rule allowing five minutes for a change of clothes. No rules were broken, but Evans was furious at the long delay before the third set, lost focus entirely, was broken: 0-3.
He channelled the anger into a love hold, though, and upped the ante to break the Karatsev serve. Yet again, he faced a killer net-cord, and shook his head in disbelief. However, he earned a break point in the seventh game, only to see it saved by a stunning touch volley winner by the Russian that even Evans applauded.
It proved to be a turning point, the Russian, with the key break, went on to serve out the match, 6-4, after more than three hours, and almost an hour after his previous three match-points. He had put together some outstanding statistics, too: 56 winners, and 33 points won at net, but then both men had made almost twice as many winners to errors.
So it will be Karatsev who takes on Murray for the first time after the Briton came through another of his signature three-set battles over a man 10 years his junior, the 6ft11in world No25, Reilly Opelka.
The American reached the final of the Toronto Masters and semis of the Rome Masters last season, and broke the top 20 after his fourth-round run at the US Open. In Sydney, he had barely broken a sweat in reaching the semis—but now he would.
Murray, who is preparing to play his first Australian Open since his heart-breaking five-set loss to Roberto Bautista Agut three years ago, had already beaten world No22 Nikoloz Basilashvili, 6-7(4), 7-6(3), 6-3, in a three and a quarter hour battle two days ago, and would surely have been grateful for a retirement from David Goffin after one set in the quarters.
But, even with the metal hip that he received after that 2019 Australian exit, he has continued to battle back to fitness. And here was that gritty Murray in spades, prepared to dig deep for another two and a half hours. He fought back from 5-1 down in the opening set tie-break to level 6-6, but Opelka still managed to hold on for the set, 7-6(6).
Murray was clearly frustrated at letting that tie-break slip away, but the Briton’s speed, tactical smarts, and ability to turn defence into attack saw him break down the infamous Opelka serve in the third game of the second set for a 2-1 lead. His level continued to rise, as Murray dropped only one point out of 21 on serve, building an impregnable wall to assure the set, 6-4.
Each saved a break point early in the decider, but the Briton finally edged the lead to serve out the win, 6-4, to make his first final since October 2019. He went on to win the Antwerp title, but he admitted title prospects were still in the future:
“It would be amazing to start the year with a trophy… but it’s already been a great week for me, big progress from anything I’ve done in the last year or so, to string four matches together like this and against top players in Basilashvili and Opelka.
“I’ll go for 47 [titles] tomorrow. It’s been a good week, I’ve played better with each match, so hopefully I’ll step it up again tomorrow.”
He will no doubt check out some streams of Karatsev’s match against Evans for some tips: It will be a tough one.
2021 was another difficult season for Murray, hampered by a Covid infection and assorted injuries early in the year. But his ranking has now risen in Sydney from 135 to 112, and the title would see him back inside the top 100 for the first time since May 2018. Murray already has a wild card into the main Australian Open draw—where he will face Basilashvili again—so the only way now, it seems, is up.
Source: Sport Review