Australian Open 2020: Medvedev and Rublev spearhead Russian surge, but Kyrgios downs Khachanov in epic
Krygios faces No1 Nadal; Rublev will take on No7 Zverev
How appropriate that the ever-popular Marat Safin has been in Australia since the start of 2020, first as captain of the Russian ATP Cup squad and, come Saturday night at the Melbourne Arena, watching Karen Khachanov, in the most thrilling contest of the day.
It is 15 years since former No1 Safin won the second of his two Majors at the Australian Open, a tournament where he had twice been runner-up before. There has not been a Russian champion at a Major since, and it is almost 13 years since Russia contemplated seeing three of its men reach the fourth round of the same Major.
But Safin was now presiding over what looks like a renaissance in Russian tennis. As the draw was made for this year’s Australian Open, no fewer than three men were seeded: one of them in the top four, Daniil Medvedev, and the other two at 16 and 17, Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev respectively. And all of them are age 23 or under.
Few tennis fans will have avoided the name of Medvedev in the last year. Already he stood out in this 2020 season, having won four of five singles matches at the ATP Cup, taking Novak Djokovic to almost three hours in a three-set loss in the semis.
But that was just the latest in a blistering 12 months that began in Melbourne last year, ranked 19, when Medvedev lost a three and a quarter four-setter to Djokovic in the fourth round. The Russian would go on to beat the then world No1 in the Monte Carlo and Cincinnati Masters, both matches going to three sets, and then piled up the most match-wins in the season with an astonishing race to the ATP Finals in London.
He made the final in Washington, then in Montreal and the US Open, where he was one half of a superb five-set thriller against eventual champion Rafael Nadal. In between, he joined a rare band of players to win a Masters, in Cincinnati, the 250 in St Petersburg, and his second Masters in Shanghai. That made six finals in a row, a 29-3 run.
Rightly so, then, his name has been touted as a real prospect for winning a Major. And so far in Australia, he has done little to diminish his reputation. He lost one set in his first match, against Frances Tiafoe, but cruised past Australian Alex Popyrin, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, to set his hardest opponent to so far. What is more, No15 Stan Wawrinka will be fresh after John Isner retired in the second set—a welcome result for the Swiss who toiled, feeling ill, through a five-setter in the second round against Andreas Seppi.
Rublev, just 22 years old, took up where Medvedev left off at the end of 2019. The youngest of the Russian trio had been through tough times to overcome back and wrist injuries, but since last October, he won Moscow, and then all four of his singles matches at the Davis Cup, and reached the Paris doubles final along the way. As for 2020, he was about to go for his 11th straight win after winning back-to-back titles in Doha and Adelaide.
That made 19/21 since last October, but he was now facing No11 seed David Goffin. However, just as in their first match, before Rublev turned 20 at the 2017 US Open, the Russian won, coming back from a set and a break down, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6.
It earned Rublev a mouth-watering contest against fellow 22-year-old, No7 seed Alexander Zverev, who was perhaps the first of the new generation of players to threaten at the Majors.
Born of Russian parents, the German Zverev won his third Masters title just after turning 21, but Majors remained elusive. And after winning the ATP Finals in 2018, he lost confidence and form in a year marred by off-court problems. Yet in Melbourne, there have been hopeful signs for the young star. In the off-season, he played a South American exhibition tour with Roger Federer, then had minor eye surgery, and has begun his campaign this week with renewed form and confidence. Indeed, he has yet to drop a set, beating Fernando Verdasco, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. He has also beaten Rublev in all three previous matches.
The last match of the day always promised to be the best on the schedule, bringing as it did home-grown star Nick Kyrgios against Khachanov.
Their only previous meeting was just six months ago in Cincinnati, and it was a close affair, 6-7, 7-6, 6-2 to Khachanov. For this Russian was arguably the first to make his mark on the tour, winning his debut title as a teenager, in Chengdu, and then three in 2018, including the Paris Masters.
His form and ranking slipped from No8 after reaching his first Major quarter-final at Roland Garros last year, to No17, but alongside Medvedev, he won five of six singles matches at the ATP Cup to help Russia to the semis in Sydney. And he showed outstanding grit in Melbourne to survive almost three hours and four sets in his first match, and then a marathon battle of over four and a half hours against Mikael Ymer.
Now he would have to do it all again against Kyrgios—and with perhaps the most raucous and partisan crowd so far at this year’s tournament.
The No23-seeded Aussie has been centre-stage in Australia since helping his team to the semis of the ATP Cup, and calling on Tennis Australia, fellow players and fans to support fund-raising for the devastating bush-fires that have raged around his city of Canberra.
He has been a man on a mission in Melbourne, too, winning two testing openers to set up this showdown. And he seemed to have it on his racket for most of the first half of what would become his longest ever match.
In the first set, he made 10 winners to the Russian’s three, broke twice, and went ahead, 6-2 after half an hour. The 6ft 6ins Khachanov looked below par in all departments: Was that second-round match still weighing heavy?
The second set would be closer, courtesy of much better play from Khachanov. They headed to a tie-break, but again Kyrgios was too good for the Russian, closing the set with 26 winners and 12 errors, 7-6(5).
In the third, Kyrgios got the early break, only to hand it back in the eighth game, 4-4. Now Khachanov was warming to the task, almost matching the Australian in the aces department, coming to the net more often—and the Russian is a good doubles player—and again they headed to a tie-break with the match already almost two and a half hours old. Khachanov had the slight edge 3-1, and then 5-3, but Kyrgios, now with 55 winners to his tally, worked it back to match point. But Khachanov would not back down, served big, and grabbed the set, 7-6(6).
And from there, the quality and drama rose as each refused to give an inch. There were drops, lobs, volleys, huge forehands, and big serves. Khachanov took a medical time out for his right shoulder, but it seemed to matter not. He made 11/13 at the net, made just two unforced errors. Meanwhile, Kyrgios dived to the court, mopped up a bleeding hand, then aced again, his 24th. It went to another tie-break,
From 2-2, neither man could keep their serve to 5-5. At last, there were five points with serve, one of them another match point for Kyrgios but it was snuffed out, and the Australian would make the first mistake to concede the set, 7-6(7).
The fifth set produced not a single break-point chance. Both made twice as many winners as errors, both came to the net 11 times, both won 81 percent of first serves. The standard of play was exceptional, though against expectation, perhaps, the Russian seemed more full of running. He held to love in three straight games, but at four hours, they had 173 points each. A love hold apiece took it to a match tie-break, first to 10.
The level, already high, rose still further, and the crowd went into overdrive as Kyrgios went 3-0. But again, Khachanov closed the gap. Then a blistering Aussie backhand got it back to 8-8, and the Russian made two backhand errors to give Kyrgios the victory after four and a half hours, 7-6(8).
Kyrgios, looking completely drained, confessed: “It was definitely one of the craziest matches I’ve ever been a part of… My legs feel about 40kg each… I thought I was going to lose, honestly.”
And of Khachanov’s effort, he said simply: “He’s an absolute warrior. He’s going to be one to do special things, that’s for sure.”
It was certainly a tough match to lose: the Russian ended with 21 aces, 41 points won at the net, 75 winners for 44 errors, and a serve speed the equal of Kyrgios’s 143mph. But although he was the one to leave the fray, make no mistake: the Russians are coming, and in numbers.
Kyrgios next plays Nadal, a match in which there is little love lost between either man. Kygrios has two wins from their last four meetings, both on hard courts, but the big question is whether the Australian can recover from his five-setter as well as Khachanov did. The world No1 has yet to drop a set.
Elsewhere, No5 seed Dominic Thiem set a meeting with No10 seed Gael Monfils after they beat Taylor Fritz and Ernests Gulbis respectively.