Breakthrough seasons are usually reserved for the next generation of future stars, not so much for a player whose total ATP Tour wins can be counted on three fingers by the time he passes his mid-20s; who spent the first eight years of his career grafting away in the lower reaches of the professional game; who, from the outside at least, never looked like breaking the top 100, let alone the top 50.
Yet, that is precisely where Aslan Karatsev found himself when he started the 2021 season. Skip ahead six weeks and three tournaments and the 27-year-old Russian is now a history-making Grand Slam semi-finalist and an ATP 500 champion.
What was perhaps most surprising about his run to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships title was that, in hindsight, it wasn't that surprising at all. Karatsev merely replicated the Australian Open form that made him the first male player in the Open era to reach a major semi-final on debut. That proved more than enough to land him his first ATP title.
"You could say it’s an unusual trend for a professional player, but he’s been putting in the work for so many years and this is the time it’s paying off," said beaten Dubai finalist Lloyd Harris, who was no match for Karatsev in a match the Russian won 6-3, 6-2 in just 75 minutes.
"He’s clearly thriving off his confidence. He got some big wins and that gave him a lot of belief. He started to trust his game tremendously and that is why we’re seeing him have these results. It’s been coming for a long time and he’s taken it to another level this year.”
For a player who had won just three tour-level matches between 2013 and 2020 and played 13 total, it really is extraordinary what he is accomplishing this season. His only losses in 2021 have come against world No 1 Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open and world No 4 Dominic Thiem at the Qatar Open. No shame there and Karatsev still went and won the doubles title in Doha.
Handed a wildcard by Dubai organisers and as an unseeded player, Karatsev had to navigate treacherous waters to reach the final. But as the opponents got tougher, he simply raised his game. British 12th seed Dan Evans, Italian 17th seed Lorenzo Sonego, and Jannik Sinner, one of the tour's most exciting young talents, all tried and failed to halt the Karatsev express.
The biggest statement came in the semi-finals against second seed and world No 8 Andrey Rublev, himself in scintillating form this season. But his fellow Russian could not hang with Karatsev, who ran away with the third set to reach the final.
So to Saturday's title match where Karatsev would find himself in the unfamiliar position of being the overwhelming favourite against South Africa's Harris, another perennial underdog.
World No 81 Harris, who came through qualifying, posed a significant danger after a week that saw him eliminate top seed Dominic Thiem, former world No 4 Kei Nishikori, and third seed Denis Shapovalov on his way to his first ATP 500 final.
In the end, though, it was all fairly routine for Karatsev. He broke a nervy Harris to take a 2-0 lead in the first set and closed out the opener after the subsequent seven games went with serve. The second set started much the same way with Harris dropping serve in the first game. A second break to hand Karatsev a 5-2 lead was the final nail in the coffin and the Russian closed out the victory with a love service hold. He now holds a 12-2 win-loss record for 2021. By comparison, his career record before this season was 3-10.
“I’m really happy with my performance and my game since the beginning of the year," Karatsev said. "I have shown a great level and after the Australian Open I kept going and practiced hard. I showed a great level this week and I’m looking forward to Miami.”
With the first Masters 1000 event of the season next week in Florida, there will be no surprise if Karatsev keeps the good times rolling.