Kafelnikov: 'Kids Want To Be Like Medvedev, Rublev Or Khachanov'
Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin are Russian heroes. They were the first men from their country to win a Grand Slam and reach World No. 1. But according to Kafelnikov, times are changing... in a good way.
“If you go to the tennis clubs where juniors are participating, they don’t want to be like Kafelnikov or Safin anymore,” Kafelnikov said. “They want to be like Medvedev or Rublev or Khachanov. That’s logical. It’s a good thing for them to follow someone and try to be like those three guys.”
Third seed Daniil Medvedev and 10th seed Andrey Rublev are into the fourth round at the US Open for the second straight year. This marks the first time in the Open Era that two Russian men have reached the fourth round of the US Open in consecutive years.
“It would have been nice if all the three made the fourth round, but unfortunately Karen lost to De Minaur. That was a tough loss. I thought he had a good chance to be in the fourth round and in that case it would have been spectacular, but that’s life,” Kafelnikov said. “Two Russians are in the fourth round and onto the second week, so that’s definitely a good thing for Russian tennis.”
It’s fitting that Medvedev and Rublev have known each other since they were young. The 24-year-old Medvedev, who is 20 months older than his 22-year-old countryman, remembers their first meeting.
“I think we played a match when we were maybe 12 years old, or [he was] 11, and we were [some] of the worst juniors in terms of attitude that you could see,” Medvedev said. “We were crying, throwing the racquets over the fans. We were young, of course, so we hated to lose. I was doing only lobs at the time. I don't think he was hitting the ball as hard as right now. They were crazy matches.”
They have history in New York from their junior days, too. One year after both Russians lost, they visited Times Square together.
“We had a great time,” Medvedev said. “Jelena Ostapenko was also there. Nice memories. All of us are on the top level now.”
Rublev was the first to break through at a Grand Slam, reaching the US Open quarter-finals in 2017 when he was 19. That made him the youngest quarter-finalist at this event since Andy Roddick in 2001. Rublev was World No. 53 when he accomplished that. Now, he is at a career-high World No. 14. Medvedev has noticed his friend’s improvement, especially in the consistency department.
“We knew he can play amazing tennis, just unbelievable tennis. But if he was not there yet [it] meant he was not as consistent as [he] could have been,” Medvedev said. “Now he's really consistent. Every tournament he plays he does good. The start of the year was amazing for him, so hopefully he will continue like this.”
Rublev began 2020 with an 11-0 record, becoming the first player to win titles in the first two weeks of the season (Doha, Adelaide) since Dominik Hrbaty in 2004. Perhaps nobody has been as consistent since the start of last season as Medvedev. The 6’6” righty reached the final of six consecutive tournaments last year, winning his first two ATP Masters 1000 titles in Cincinnati and Shanghai while also making his maiden major final at the US Open.
“He has an amazing serve, amazing return. [He] has amazing legs. [He is an] unbelievable fighter. He brings all the balls [back in play]. He fights no matter what,” Rublev said. “His style of the game is really, really unusual, so you cannot rush with him. He forces you to not play your style of the game. He forces you to play a little bit slower. He forces you to wait more, to play longer rallies.
“Many players maybe in one moment after one hour playing this type of game, type of style, they start to stress, they start to give up. They start to rush, they start to go for the shots, try to play shorter rallies and in the end they miss more than they make.”
Medvedev and Rublev might play one another in the quarter-finals. In Monday’s fourth round, Medvedev faces Frances Tiafoe and Rublev battles sixth seed Matteo Berrettini, with the winners of those matches clashing in the last eight. But no matter what happens, the Russians are making a broader statement.
Medvedev, Rublev and Khachanov all have competed in the Next Gen ATP Finals — Rublev did so twice — and they are now proving themselves among the world’s best. On 2 March they became the first Russian trio to be inside the Top 15 of the FedEx ATP Rankings in history (since 1973).
“We’ve been struggling on the men’s side especially with players consistently reaching the second week of Grand Slams. We almost had three guys, so we could not be happier than with what we’re seeing right now. For the fans and the supporters, it’s quite a good thing,” Kafelnikov said. “Tennis is still a big sport [in Russia]. It gets a lot of coverage on the TV, in the media. Tennis athletes are well-recognised in the country.
“Medvedev with his results has definitely [increased] his image and he has become a much more recognisable sports figure in the country for sure. If he continues like this he might become bigger than all ice hockey players or football players. That’s totally in his hands, whatever he does on the court. If they [all] continue their success, they’re definitely going to be more recognisable.”