MELBOURNE, Australia – After a quiet period, Russian men’s tennis is picking up steam.
At the turn of the century, Russia had two No.1-ranked male players and Grand Slam champions Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and the country won the Davis Cup in 2002 and 2006.
But since Safin’s retirement in 2009, the country has fallen into relative obscurity on the men’s side, instead drawing attention to his successes in the upper echelons of women’s football.
Hope is bubbling again in the form of two young prospects, Karen Khachanov, 20, and Andrey Rublev, 19, who won their first round matches at the Australian Open. And Alexander Bublik, 207th, a 19-year-old Russian who represents Kazakhstan, managed one of the biggest surprises of the first round, beating Frenchman Lucas Pouille, 16th.
Another Russian, Daniil Medvedev, 20, lost his first-round match on Tuesday, but moved up more than 250 places in the standings, to climb to 63rd place last year.
Right in front of him is Khachanov, who is ranked 52nd after a skyrocketing late last year that included his first ATP title.
âI think they don’t talk a lot about us because they had No 1 players,â Khachanov said. âThe higher we are, the more they will talk. But everyone wants us to be higher, and they expect us to be higher. “
Khachanov caused a stir at the age of 17 when he reached the quarter-finals of the ATP Moscow tournament in 2013, but it did not lead to similar successes immediately.
âEverything is done step by step,â he said. “I worked hard last season and the offseason before, and it paid off in the end.”
He added: âAfter this quarter-final I thought everything was easy and that I would be in the top 100 soon, but it was still a long way. You have to stay focused to try to be like a rock, to push yourself not to be affected by things. “
Khachanov enjoys reading classical Russian literature and playing chess against Rublev.
Bublik, however, admitted that he lacked the kind of focus chess requires, saying he struggled to read a book for more than half an hour.
âI was an artist when I was born,â said Bublik, who is called Sasha. âI was running on my hands through the school. I was always like that. I just put it inside my tennis shoe. When I was maybe 14, I was really stuck because of it – I couldn’t play tennis, I just made jokes and stuff. Then I found a balance between being serious and entertaining – a clown, or whatever.
Bublik’s wandering attention is often seen in his room, with interjections of slices and drop shots at times seemingly not recommended.
âThe way I play is pretty weird for guys,â said Bublik. âThey don’t know how to beat me most of the time. I mostly play against myself.
This confidence has been rewarded with dazzling results, including an improvement in its ranking of 755 places last year. After his upset in the first round, Bublik said he would reward himself with a black jacket that he saw in the window of a Gucci boutique in Melbourne. Her big “tiger claw” tears and a large bird image caught her attention.
âI don’t like jackets, I don’t wear them, but this one is unreal,â he said, his eyes wide.
Bublik does not back down from the spotlight, even if his accomplishments do not yet equal those of Khachanov or Rublev. During his qualifying run here, he posted a video of himself interviewing a local Rafael Nadal impersonator.
Bublik said he admires Irish fighter Conor McGregor, who participates in mixed martial arts – “I love that kid,” he said of McGregor, who is nine years older than him. Bublik also showed little caution and deference shown by Khachanov and Rublev when they reaffirmed that his only goal was to become No.1.
âYeah, that’s it, simple,â he said.
Would # 2 be enough?
“No,” he said.
Bublik speaks English with a distinctly Californian rhythm, something he learned during his training in the Bay Area as a teenager.
âI want to sound like I’m from LA,â he said.
Emphasis aside, Khachanov hesitated when Bublik was mentioned in a list of promising young Russians.
âHe’s not Russian; he is no longer Russian, âKhachanov said. âHe’s playing for Kazakhstan now, so you can’t say he’s Russian. This is the principle I think. If he moved there, you can’t say he’s Russian.
Following in the footsteps of several other Russians, Bublik, born in St. Petersburg, chose to represent Kazakhstan in exchange for the support of his federation.
âRussia has never helped me; they didn’t give me anything, âBublik said. âKazakhstan gave me the best. I have everything to improve, and this is what I need.
He added: âI’m happy to represent them, but I’m still Russian. I was born there. I lived there for 19 years. My parents live there.