We’ve seen this happen before!
In 2021, Aslan Karatsev, ranked outside the top 100, qualified for the Australian Open and made it all the way to the semi-finals – on his Grand Slam main draw debut no less.
This fortnight at the Mutua Madrid Open, Karatsev is back doing what he does best – unleashing missiles from the baseline and blasting his opponents off the court.
Arriving at the Caja Magica ranked 121 in the world, Karatsev has stormed into a maiden Masters 1000 semi-final with seven consecutive victories through qualifying and the main draw to set up a last-four meeting with No.4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas or lucky loser Jan-Lennard Struff.
His latest victim is Zhang Zhizhen, who fell to Karatsev 7-6(3), 6-4 in a tight quarter-final on Estadio Manolo Santana on Thursday.
“First of all, I’m happy with my condition, back to the top level, playing well, feeling well,” said Karatsev, who is projected to return to at least 51 in the world, thanks to his run in Madrid.
“It’s really important, from the qualies, match by match it got harder and harder, I think mentally you have to be there every point, because these players don’t give you any free points, you have to do everything by yourself. So the important thing is to recover well.”
Entering his match with Zhang, Karatsev was coming off a big win over world No.3 Daniil Medvedev – his first top-10 victory in two years – and had dropped just one set across the six victories he collected at the Caja Magica thus far.
The 29-year-old was ranked a career-high No.14 in the world 15 months ago, but slipped through the rankings after admittedly “struggling last year”.
“You just have to keep going, to believe,” he said on Thursday.
Zhang was having a statement tournament of his own in Madrid.
After becoming the first Chinese man in history to crack the top 100 in the world rankings last October, Zhang broke new ground for Chinese tennis in Madrid this fortnight as the first player from his nation to reach the fourth round and the quarter-finals at an ATP Masters 1000 tournament.
To book his meeting with Karatsev, Zhang posted three consecutive clutch victories with a final-set 7-6 scoreline. The world No.99 knocked out No.21 seed Denis Shapovalov in the second round, No.11 seed Cameron Norrie in the third, and saved three match points en route to his win over No.8 seed Taylor Fritz.
“I’ll tell you a secret. We had a practice, I lost 6-0 with Karatsev,” revealed Zhang prior to their quarter-final showdown.
You never would have guessed watching their clash on Thursday.
Very little separated the pair through the first set, as they attempted to overpower each other from the baseline.
Karatsev got himself out of a 0-40 hole in game three, finding his serve when he needed it the most and pummelling winners off his second shot from both wings.
Zhang also faced pressure on serve but a slick down-the-line backhand winner helped him hold for 3-3 after swatting away a break point.
The Shanghai native began the tiebreak with a 3-0 advantage but an explosive Karatsev wiped away the deficit with some massive hitting from the back of the court that earned him seven straight points, the tiebreak, and the set.
Karatsev fired 17 winners compared to Zhang’s four during the one-hour opening set.
The momentum clearly on his side, Karatsev kicked off the second set with a break of serve and he maintained his gap to wrap up the win in one hour and 41 minutes.
Looking ahead to his potential semi-final opponents, Karatsev is 0-1 head-to-head against Tsitsipas and has defeated Struff in their sole previous meeting, which happened to be in the qualifying tournament in Madrid last week.