With a name derived from the old Turkish word for lion, Aslan Karatsev has produced the most surprising roar in the tennis world for quite some time.
The unlikelihood of Karatsev’s run to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open cannot be overstated: the Russian, ranked No 258 in the world last year, had never played in the main draw of a grand slam before he battled through qualifying in Doha to earn a place in the first round.
Even that did not come easy. Although he was the No 3 seed in the qualifying tournament, he had to go to a deciding set against up-and-coming American Brandon Nakashima, before triumphing 6-2 6-7 6-2.
He subsequently lost just six more games in his next two wins to reach the main draw and achieve a lifelong ambition at the age of 27.
Not many people saw this being the moment for Karatsev to announce himself. The Australian Open has thrown up surprising results in the latter stages before – 2018 springs to mind when Kyle Edmund and Chung Hyeon both reached the semi-finals – but nothing that really compares to the rise of Karatsev.
In fact, he is the first grand slam debutant to reach the quarter-finals for 25 years. (After the 1996 Wimbledon quarter-final, Alex Radulescu would never make another slam last eight again.)
Karatsev’s career to date had been almost exclusively spent on the second-tier Challenger Tour, barring the odd wildcard into a tournament in his homeland of Russia and the occasional, unsuccessful Davis Cup appearance. Until last October, he had never beaten a player in the top 50, but then he beat Tennys Sandgren in St Petersburg – another Russian tournament he got into courtesy of a wildcard.
If there was the slightest hint of a clue that Karatsev might be ready for a breakout performance, it was in his Challenger Tour form last year. Having won just one Challenger title in his life, he picked up wins in Prague and Ostrava, losing another final in Prague to Stan Wawrinka and reaching the semi-final in Oritsei.
When he was then handed a kind draw of Gianluca Mager, ranked just 18 places about him and then Belarus’ Egor Gerasimov in the second round, he was able to take advantage in the best way.
Those who are familiar with Karatsev’s work in the second tier are not altogether surprised by his subsequent shock wins over Diego Schwartzman and Felix Auger-Aliassime. His game style, uber-aggressive and going for every gap makes him a streaky player at any level: when it doesn’t come off, as it didn’t in the first two sets against Auger-Aliassime, he disappears quickly, but when it does, he is very hard to beat.
His fellow Russians also seemed to know something everyone else didn’t during the ATP Cup the week before the first grand slam of the year.
“Aslan, I’m not joking, was a secret weapon for doubles,” world No 4 Daniil Medvedev said of his teammate, who was never required to play a live match in Team Russia’s ATP Cup triumph.
“He didn’t manage to show it because we didn’t have a 1-1 match, but he was our secret weapon.”
The secret is out now, and Grigor Dimitrov will be the next man to try to tame the lion when the quarter-finals get underway on Tuesday.