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US Open 2017 - Rublev emerges from the shadows

By Guillaume Willecoq   on   Monday 04 September 2017
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Nineteen-year-old Andrey Rublev is the sole remaining teenager in the men’s singles at the US Open. Following the exploits of Alexander Zverev (one year his senior) and Denis Shapovalov (one year his junior), he has the chance to round off an impressive summer by the so-called “Next Gen” and win a place in the last eight of the final Grand Slam event of the year. We put the spotlight on the former world junior No1, a typically talented Russian with a temperamental side to him.

Even in his early teens, Andrey Rublev’s immense talent was clear for all to see. What was also evident was that he still had a long way to go in terms of harnessing that talent to the full. Capable of winning prestigious Tennis Europe events such as the TIM Essonne and the BNP Paribas Cup, the young Russian also pushed the boundaries when it came to his on-court behaviour, rolling around on the ground on occasion, bursting into tears on others and even throwing his racquet down and screaming in frustration if an opponent showed too much resistance for his liking. Amid the tantrums, however, the featherweight teen showed he had the skills to overcome bigger and stronger players than he.

But that was then. Rublev has grown in stature since, both physically and mentally, and while he cannot be described as a Rafael Nadal in any sense, he has clearly matured. He has proved that much in a breakthrough 2017 season. A qualifier at the first three Grand Slam events of the year and the winner of his first ATP title at the Croatia Open Umag in July, he qualified for the main draw at the US Open on ranking. In advancing to the last 16 in New York, the young Russian has beaten Aljaz Bedene, Damir Dzumhur and recent Cincinnati Open winner Grigor Dimitrov, his first Top 10 scalp. At the age of 19 years and eight months, the 2014 world junior No1 – the year he won the French Open junior crown – is the youngest player in the world Top 50 and the third in the Top 100, behind Canadian tornado Denis Shapovalov and the USA’s Frances Tiafoe.

Roland-Garros juniors champion in 2014

Weighing just 68kg and standing 1.88m tall, Rublev remains slender of frame. One thing that has changed about him is his on-court behaviour. Like many eminent Russian players before him, among them Marat Safin, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina and Igor Andreev, he has set himself up in Spain in a bid to close the gap that separates the seasoned pros from the merely talented. For the last year and a half he has been training – along with fellow Russian prodigy Karen Khachanov – at the academy run by clay-court specialists Galo Blanco and Fernando Vicente in Barcelona, the very place where Blanco turned Milos Raonic into the player who is now a permanent fixture in the Top 10.

"Let’s say you have a door and you can open the door, and I was trying to open this door from the wall, you know?"

“I improve in this year. I improve much more than in all my tennis career,” Rublev has said on more than one occasion in New York so far. “When I was junior, I was working hard. I was not doing some bad things or something. It’s just this work was not for pro. Let’s say you have a door and you can open the door, and I was trying to open this door from the wall, you know? It was hitting the wall. It was not that I was not working or I was lazy. It’s just with this work, it’s not going to come results. You going to only be worst and worst.”

In fairness to his previous coaches, Rublev was perhaps not the easiest of charges to work with. Like every talented player with a gift for winning, the Russian also has belief: “My style is all about being aggressive. My timing is good and I’ve got good arm speed, which means I can compete against anyone as soon as I find my rhythm.” Aside from that dazzling arm, Rublev has an excellent eye.

Vicente: "Andrey trailed Dimitrov twice and he came back both times: that's the way to go"

The rest is all about hard work. “He needs to select which shot to play, which balls to attack and which balls to buy time with, and he needs to work on his placement and movement when he’s defending and his attitude between points too,” said his coach Fernando Vicente, a former world No29 who once reached the last 16 at Roland-Garros. And then there is the mental side of things: “My feeling is that Andrey still has to improve certain aspects and be more consistent, stay focused longer. He is on the right path. Andrey is still a bit far from the players above him, but he has shown that he has the determination and the work ethic to win matches like he has this week. He trailed Dimitrov twice and he came back both times (Rublev was broken in the first and second sets before winning in straight sets). That’s the way to go. If he keeps it up, he’ll become a very good player.”

The young Russian has also learned to keep a lid on his emotions, to some extent. “The main thing with Fernando was to learn to keep my cool and to try to fight for every point, even if the score was against me,” said Rublev. “That’s how it goes.” A sure sign of progress came after he followed up his comprehensive defeat of Dimitrov with a four-set defeat of the lower-ranked Dzumhur to move into the second week of a Slam for the first time in his career. He did so in the absence of Vicente, who went back to Spain for the weekend to attend his sister’s wedding. The Spaniard will make a speedy return to New York, where his prodigy will take on David Goffin with a place in the US Open quarter-finals at stake.

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