Tennis

Andrey Rublev beat his enemy instead of himself

Often a sporting event is compared to a roller coaster. But does it count for a tense five-set victory in the fourth round of the Australian Open? Let’s consult the emotionally direct No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev.

“It’s not a roller coaster, man. It’s like they put a gun to your head. I don’t know, roller coaster is easier, man,” he said. clarifying the interviewer’s metaphor, just after Monday’s 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(9) victory over Holger Rune. Given the speaker checking out. Perhaps no man on tour makes the pressures of tennis more visible than Rublev, a storm of inward-looking fury.

But this fourth-round match was a sign of personal growth. Rublev, as famous for his destructive forehands as he is notorious for self-harming on the courts, found a precious patch of calm. At several times, the victory seemed to belong to Rune, the 19-year-old who beelined to the top of the tour last season and entered this tournament as the No. 9 seed. Rune served for the match in fifth, building a comfortable cushion in the decisive set tiebreak. Old Rublev could have done other things with his racket in this situation—beat the skin off his knuckles, or test the solidity of his own knee (or a bananaor his banana)—but this version used it to serve big, adjust its mistakes, and eventually steal the win with a little blessing from the mains.

(embed)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLNnuqwws1Y(/embed)

“I was 5-2 down in the fifth set; 6-5, down two match points. Then 5-0 down in the super tiebreak,” Rublev said. “I have never in my life been able to win matches like this. This is the first time ever that I have won something like this.” It is the sound of relief. Afterwards, Rublev said he had drawn on the dark memory of last season’s fifth-set tiebreak against Marin Cilic in a French Open quarter-final. He thought “at least not like Roland-Garros when I completely gave up – at least try to play better than there.” He said in August 2022 that he used to watch videos where he melted and thought, “What am I doing?” and hoping to “eradicate those things from my game.” Rublev will have a more positive late-game memory to draw on now, and his own skeleton should thank him.

For Rune, however, the result may be harder to stomach. The younger player had struggled with the heat — during a medical timeout early in the fourth, he had his heart rate and blood pressure checked — but entering the second fifth set of his career, he elevated his game, which at its best is a surprisingly athletic mix of attack and defense, of shot tolerance and shot making. By the time Rune got an opportunity to serve out the match at 5-3, Rune was out of love: a Rublev forehand winner, a Rune forehand error and, damn it, two double faults. His collapse in the fifth set tiebreak was more excusable as Rublev read Rune’s serve well and found his own aces to rip off six straight points. Even after that disappointment, Rune managed to save two match points, one with an instant classic backhand shot after an errant shot:

(embed)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEOyG2wu-Io(/embed)

“I think I had all the chances I could have wanted. I just didn’t close him,” Rune said afterward, falling just short of his second major quarterfinal. During the match, he looked very much like the teenager, making a zipping gesture to his box one moment and urging them to scream the next as he stomped and stomped around. Contrast this with his incredibly ice-cold win last year against Novak Djokovic in Paris and it’s clear that he has the capacity to focus in these close matches against higher-ranked competition.

Rublev, often criticized for his one-dimensional game, has recently sharpened his ability to close out points at the net. In fairness, that single dimension – pulverizing forehands from the baseline wherever remotely possible – has proven difficult for most opponents to stop. After this match, he said it was first physical strength and later mental strength that kept him from advancing in his seven previous trips to major quarterfinals. If the win over Rune felt like a gun battle, what will be the metaphor for Rublev’s next test against Djokovic?

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