Andrey Rublev: Music-loving tennis star making his game sing at the US Open

Russian world No 14 talks exclusively to Reem Abulleil about the Flushing Meadows bubble, his improvements as a player, and his musical aspirations

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While many male players spent a large chunk of the tour’s coronavirus-enforced hiatus playing exhibition matches, Andrey Rublev was busy learning how to make music when he wasn’t on the practice court.

The 22-year-old Russian, ranked a career-high No 14, is known to be obsessed with tennis. His Spanish coach Fernando Vicente once told me that if he ever gave Rublev a weekend off, his protégé would “start to stress because he wants to work, he doesn’t want to waste time”.

But while tennis is Rublev’s first love, music appears to be a close second.

Five years ago, a teenaged Rublev approached some friends who had a band and asked to join them in a music video they were shooting for their cover of a One Direction song (the video has more than 60,000 views on YouTube). He says he did it "just for fun" but is now keen to learn more about the art of making electronic music, citing the likes of Avicii as an inspiration.

"I'm not following that many sports as other players do, I really follow music; I really love this. All pre-season I was taking guitar lessons and then now during quarantine I started to learn how to create songs," Rublev told The National on the sidelines of the US Open, where he is through to the fourth round.

“For the moment I’m so bad, so I need to work on it a lot. I started to be more in touch with music; I started to know more people from that area.”

While his career as DJ Andrey is still in its infancy, Rublev’s tennis career is thriving.

The 6’2” Muscovite kicked off 2020 by clinching back-to-back titles in Doha and Adelaide, before reaching the last 16 at the Australian Open, where his 15-match winning streak came to an end.

At the US Open, he stormed into the fourth round without dropping a set, and has a huge showdown on Monday with Italian No 6 seed Matteo Berrettini, who bead Rublev at the same stage last year in New York en route to the semi-finals. Both players hit the ball so hard, helmets would be recommended for anyone watching courtside.

After a five-month break from tennis, Rublev hasn’t missed a beat, and he handled the tour suspension with great perspective, despite the fact that it interrupted his career-best season.

“This was happening with all the world and many people were losing their jobs, they were not earning enough money to live, so in my case I cannot even complain. I was really lucky that I was still able to work, to live, to practice, so I’m not the one who can complain,” said Rublev, who is no stranger to being forced to stay away from tennis.

A stress fracture in his back sidelined him for several months in 2018 and he missed the French Open last year with a wrist problem.

The strict bubble conditions at the US Open have proven to be challenging for many players, but not Rublev. He has cut a relaxed figure over the past week, sitting in the terrace of his designated VIP suite at Arthur Ashe stadium, watching his peers’ matches during his downtime. He made sure he caught a few games of Andy Murray’s first round against Yoshihito Nishioka before he took to the court himself for his opener.

“I really like Andy as a person, I really like him as a player, so I wanted to see at least a couple of games because I knew it would be a really high level with good rallies of smart tennis,” he said.

“When I was in quarantine, I was having the same situation; I was living almost in a bubble, I was going only to the tennis court and then to the apartment. And it was like this for almost five months. So in the end here, after the quarantine that I have been through, this looks amazing, because here you have so many things to do onsite and at the hotel.”

He is well-acquainted with the bubble life, but Rublev remains acutely aware of the constant coronavirus risk. If he or someone on his team tests positive for Covid-19, his time at the tournament will be cut short.

Benoit Paire is the only player to get a positive test result so far in New York, but contact tracing identified seven players who had close contact with the Frenchman and they are also out of the tournament and in quarantine.

If you compare me with me three years ago when I made the quarter-finals, I started to see many things differently

“Of course it’s worrying because you feel that even, maybe, without doing a mistake, doing everything right, you still can test positive and it makes you worried,” Rublev said. “But in the end you cannot control this because it can happen with anyone, it can happen anywhere, even if you stay all day in your room, practice court and back to the room, it still can happen.”

With Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer both absent from a grand slam draw for the first time since 1999 and Novak Djokovic getting defaulted from the tournament on Sunday for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball, the Big Three's stronghold on the majors will finally come to an end at the US Open this week, where a new grand slam champion is guaranteed to be crowned.

The likes of Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem are now considered to be the obvious new top contenders for the trophy. Despite his brilliant form in the first week, Rublev has been flying under the radar in comparison.

Novak Djokovic remains the top contender, but the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem are seen as serious threats to the Serb’s assault on an 18th Slam title. Despite his brilliant form in the first week, Rublev has been flying under the radar.

“I'm fine with both ways – when I don't have [any] attention and when I have it, when people expect something, because in the end I try to focus on myself,” he said. “I try to focus on the things that I need to do. In the end it's part of our sport. Every time someone will have more attention, someone will have less attention.”

Rublev, who won his third round against Salvatore Caruso on Saturday in a mere 83 minutes for the loss of just four games, is into the last 16 in New York for the third time in five appearances. His first shining moment at the tournament came three years ago when he blasted into the quarter-finals as a 19-year-old, upsetting Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin along the way.

“If you compare me with me three years ago when I made the quarter-finals, I started to see many things differently,” said the former Roland Garros junior champion. “I started to realise how tough it is, how hard you need to work.

“Before I was a little bit more simple, I was thinking you just need to work and that’s it. But it’s not only about work, it’s how you prepare, how you play, what exactly are you doing on court, what you’re doing outside the court.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 05: Matteo Berrettini of Italy reacts during his Men's Singles third round match against Casper Ruud of Norway on Day Six of the 2020 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 05, 2020 in the Queens borough of New York City.   Al Bello/Getty Images/AFP
Andrey Rublev faces sixth seed Matteo Berrettini, above, in one of the standout fourth round matches at the US Open. AFP

“Three years ago, I was not really even thinking about it, I was just thinking to practice full power, hitting the ball, and then go to the match and do the same thing. But it’s not about this. So when I made the quarter-finals three years ago it was completely lucky, it was not because of my level.”

Rublev has been working with Vicente, a former top-30 player, since 2016. His development from being just a power player to one who is more consistent and is making better decisions on court has been evident, particularly over the past 12 months.

“The way he sees tennis is amazing,” Rublev said of Vicente. “It's something I never heard from any coach the way he understands tennis, the way he understands mentality.

“Even when he was a player, I think he had one of the best eyes on tour, the way he saw the ball. He knows before a player will make a decision, where this player was going to hit and he was already waiting there.

“He's trying to teach me, but I'm not that smart like him for the moment to understand it. But little by little, I hope I start to learn.”

The word 'learn' is a common one in Rublev's vocabulary. The men's game is going through political upheaval at the moment as Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil have led a movement to form a new player association, independent of the ATP. Rublev has yet to sign on to be part of the new PTPA and says he will not do so until he learns the ins and outs of the situation.

For now, he is focused at the task at hand, and that is figuring out a way to defeat Berrettini on Monday.

“I think really it's going to be a great match to watch. I can tell everybody to watch this match because it's going to be interesting,” said Rublev's fellow Russian and last year’s US Open runner-up, Daniil Medvedev.

It might be a good idea to set our alarms for that one.