Andrey Rublev has attempted to keep expectations low this week at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. As it turns out, he was simply lulling his rivals into a false sense of security.
The Russian world No 7 arrived in the UAE at 2am on Tuesday morning fresh from clinching the Marseille Open title last Sunday, and played his first round match later that day. Fast forward to Saturday evening and he was lifting his second trophy in six days after defeating Czech qualifier Jiri Vesely 6-3, 6-4 in the Dubai final.
"Finally I can rest for a whole week now," Rublev said in his on-court interview. "I'm super happy to be the champion. I didn't expect this because I didn't have time to adapt. It's an amazing feeling."
Rublev seemed to adapt quickly enough after a solid straight-sets win in the opening round against Great Britain's Dan Evans, but it did look as though his intense workload was catching up with him when he dropped the first set in each of his next three matches, against South Korea's Soonwoo Kwon, American Mackenzie McDonald, and Polish fifth seed Hubert Hurkacz.
Keen to avoid another slow start in the final, against a player arguably in the form of his life, Rublev was sharp and focused from the get-go, pouncing on Vesely's first shaky service game to break for a 3-1 lead. That was all the advantage Rublev needed as the second seed closed out the set with a love service hold.
The final looked in danger of becoming a procession when Rublev broke immediately in the second set and led 2-0, but Vesely, playing his seventh match in as many days, dug deep to break back at 3-3 after Rublev lost his cool at umpire Carlos Bernardes following a blatant let that was not called.
Unfortunately for the Czech, Rublev quickly regrouped, resuming control with another break and a hold for 5-3. All that was left was for the Russian to close out the championship, which he did on his second match point after 81 minutes.
"To be honest, I have no idea how I did it," said Rublev, 24, reflecting on his title triumph. "I'm sure I had some chance, but somehow all week felt like every ball, every line, everything went my way. I don't know, I was luckier than anyone this week."
After collecting his 10th career title and rising one place in the world rankings to No 6, talk naturally turns to Rublev's Grand Slam prospects. The Russian has reached the quarter-finals in all but Wimbledon - twice at the US Open - but that breakthrough to a final has so far proved elusive.
Rublev believes his game is in the right place to go deeper at the majors, but he insists he needs to keep working on the mental side to consistently challenge for the biggest titles.
"The problem is that sometimes I want something really badly and I cannot manage this emotionally, so I need to find a balance to be more stable mentally," he said.
"I think it will come. I will have chances to go deep in Masters and Grand Slams. Even last year I reached two Masters finals, and I've had I don't know how many quarterfinals at the Grand Slams. I've had chances to be in the semis, but like I said, I didn't manage it mentally and that's why I couldn't win those matches."
While Rublev is the winner of the 2022 tournament in Dubai, Vesely was undoubtedly the peoples' champion. The Czech world No 123 emerged through qualifying and navigated his way through a treacherous route, taking out former US Open champion Marin Cilic and Spanish eighth seed Roberto Bautista Agut, before causing the shock of the tournament by eliminating world No 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals.
After edging a thrilling semi-final against Canadian sixth seed Denis Shapovalov that lasted more than three hours, there was little wonder that Vesely was running on empty in the final.
Vesely may have missed out on the title but in reaching the final he will surge up the rankings, with the Czech expected to climb 49 places to No 74. After a difficult 12 months that saw Vesely contract Covid-19 and suffer long-term physical effects from the virus, before being involved in a car crash - from which he escaped with minor injuries - his week in Dubai has been an unqualified triumph.
"He beat all the top players to get to the final, and when you beat these players it's almost impossible to even walk, but he was able to play well in the final, so good job to him and good job to him for a great week," Rublev said.