The Evolution Of Andrey Rublev
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on 9 September 2020.
Three years ago, a 19-year-old Andrey Rublev became the youngest US Open quarter-finalist since Andy Roddick in 2001. The Russian teenager faced a great challenge against top seed Rafael Nadal, who eliminated him in only 96 minutes.
“He gave me a lesson: 1, 2, and 2,” Rublev said, referencing the score.
The big-hitting righty is back into the quarter-finals at Flushing Meadows. But this is not the same Rublev. This is a newer, better version of the ball-thrasher from Moscow.
“I hope and I wish that I'm a better player, that I have a better mentality, that physically for sure I'm better, game-wise as well,” Rublev said. “For sure I improved a lot in the past three years. I'm really happy that I reached my second quarter-final here at the US Open.”
Sure, the 22-year-old has improved different physical aspects of his game, including his serve, footwork and overall physique. But he has taken his biggest leaps mentally.
Rublev was always capable of blowing opponents off the court, but his success came in spurts and he was inconsistent. According to his quarter-final opponent, close friend Daniil Medvedev, that’s no longer the case.
“He really progressed starting last year. I think he changed something in his mindset, in his game,” Medvedev said. “Now he's one of the best players in the world, only going up the rankings. [He will be in the] Top 10 soon, I guess. Really happy for him.”
This was evident in the fourth round against 2019 semi-finalist Matteo Berrettini Last year, the Italian cruised past Rublev in straight sets in the same round. The sixth seed appeared on the same path after winning the first set on Monday, but Rublev did not panic, instead seizing control and rallying for a four-set triumph.
“He probably was thinking, ‘Shucks, I’m going to lose to this guy again,’” former World No. 4 Brad Gilbert, who was broadcasting the match, said. “But he stepped up. Now he’s got a tough match with Medvedev.”
"Last year I remember he started to play really well, he started to play aggressively and I was not ready to accept that. I started to complain really early. I was thinking, 'How was it possible that he's playing so good? I cannot play the same way.' When I woke up I was already losing two sets to zero and he was already so confident," Rublev said. "[This time] he started also so good. He was aggressive, he was dictating. I think I accepted this a little earlier and that's why after the first set I was able to come back and start to play better."
Berrettini believes Rublev improved in several areas.
“I think he's returning better, serving better. His forehand and backhand are heavier,” Berrettini said. “I knew every time that I play him that he was improving… I think he improved everything a little bit. Today he was just better than me.”
Rublev is at a career-high No. 14 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, and former World No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the first Russian to win a Grand Slam singles title, believes he “definitely” still has room to grow.
“One area I’d love for him to improve is his physical conditioning, his footwork. I think it remains to be better,” Kafelnikov said. “If he improves his quickness and footwork on the court as well as his first serve a little bit, he’s going to win many Grand Slams, I have no doubt about it.”
Kafelnikov first met Rublev when he was around 16 at a Davis Cup tie, and the Russian teen was already an impressive junior. The 26-time tour-level singles titlist is happy to see Rublev living up to those early expectations.
“There have been many cases in the past when some talented prospect has a fantastic junior career and when they try to transfer it to the different level they struggle,” Kafelnikov said. “That has not been the case for Andrey. He transferred his junior success into the men’s level, so that’s really nice to see.”
After Nadal defeated Rublev in New York three years ago, he had plenty of praise for the young Russian.
"If he continues with that improvement, he going to fight for the most important things that we have in our sport," Nadal said. "Even if you are young and you are having success, you know that you have to keep doing things that make you a better player. I think he's doing that, and that's the most important thing in our sport."
Rublev has made strides over the past three years. On Wednesday afternoon, Rublev will step onto the court inside Arthur Ashe Stadium for his second quarter-final at Flushing Meadows, where he will have a chance to prove it.