Great Stagnation

Andrey Rublev is ranked seventh in the world. He’s been a fixture on tour for a little while now, frequently winning ATP 500s and making runs to the quarterfinals of majors. He beat Nadal on clay last year, then Medvedev on hard court. He’s made the World Tour Finals twice, and has been as high as fifth in the rankings.

Try as I might, I just can’t be impressed with him.

Here’s why. First off, there’s the fact that aside from isolated wins like the ones over Medvedev and Nadal, Rublev hasn’t improved much in the last few years. He was actually one of the first young guys from this generation to make a deep run at a major — way back in 2017, he made the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. (He lost to Nadal in straight sets, winning a total of five games.) That was over four years ago. Since then, Rublev has made three more major quarterfinals, but he’s yet to win one. He’s yet to even win a set in one. I watched part of that quarterfinal with Nadal as a newbie tennis fan. I didn’t know who Rublev was. I probably didn’t even know how many majors Nadal had won. Still, I think if you had told me that Rublev wouldn’t be able to piece together a better run at a major in his next 13 tries, I’d have said something like “oh, that’s not good, is it?”

Then there’s his game. It’s not that he does anything badly, really, but he’s not the best in the world at anything. Per the ATP website, Rublev had the 22nd best serve rating, 14th best return rating, and 55th best Under Pressure rating in the past year. He hits his forehand very well — it’s a compact, power-packed shot that’s often the biggest groundstroke on the court — but it’s not as consistent as Nadal’s, or as versatile as Tsitsipas’s, or as defensively sound as Djokovic’s. His backhand is solid, but not anything to write home about. He defends reasonably well. His touch is near-absent.

His temperament on court is interesting — he holds himself to a very high standard, admonishing himself for his misses. There’s some Rafa-like intensity in him, though it’s more negatively focused. It’s like he doesn’t yet understand that perfection isn’t a realistic expectation. The bigger issue is that he’s not tactically mobile at all, likely partly due to stubbornness and partly due to the lack of depth in his game. Nadal’s fighting spirit is accompanied by his constant willingness to change things up if a match isn’t going his way. Screams and frustration alone don’t magically turn a match on its head. Rublev knows how he likes to play. It works most of the time; he wouldn’t be seventh in the world if it didn’t. Yet when he’s overmatched, there’s very little he can do to hit back. The last time he won a match from a set down was at the Laver Cup four and a half months ago (it was against Schwartzman, and they played a ten-point tiebreak instead of a third set).

A commonly trotted-out line regarding Rublev’s game is that he is one-dimensional, but really excels at his strengths. I tend to agree, but would add that even his strengths aren’t quite decisive enough against the best players in the world. His forehand is great, his desire to dictate play intense, but he can’t hit through human walls like Medvedev and Djokovic.

Yesterday, Tennis.com published an article called “STAT OF THE DAY: ANDREY RUBLEV HAS NOW REACHED THE QFS OR BETTER AT HIS LAST 11 ATP 500S IN A ROW.” Maybe I’m being overly harsh here, but for a top-eight player, that stat has to mean nothing. At that point, winning a 500 represents little more than superiority over the lesser competition in the field. Maybe the points help you climb a spot or two ahead of the next major. It’s certainly not intimidating to your rivals, those just ahead of you, who are racking up deep runs at Masters 1000s (Rublev has made two finals at this level and got crushed in both of them) or majors.

The thing is, this stat sort of defines where Rublev is right now, and has been for the past couple years. He tends to beat the players below him, though this trend hasn’t been apparent at the last four majors — he lost to Marin Čilić at the Australian Open, Frances Tiafoe at the U.S. Open, Márton Fucsovics at Wimbledon, and Jan-Lennard Struff at Roland-Garros. None of these losses are that worrying in isolation, but it’s now been over a year since Rublev made the last eight at a major. He’s beaten Tsitsipas a couple times, and Nadal and Medvedev once each, but it tends to be shocking when he beats a player ranked higher than he is.

Rublev’s consistency has been impressive at times. He has broken into the top ten by going deep in many tournaments rather than winning a big one, which speaks well of his prospects for staying there. In a way, though, it’s less encouraging than a breakthrough like Tsitsipas’s, who beat four top-ten players at the Rogers Cup in 2018 and then made the Australian Open semifinals shortly afterwards. He’s been blighted with inconsistency on hard courts for much of his career, but at least he’s shown that at his best, he can do some serious damage. I’m not sure the same can be said for Rublev, creating the impression that despite having been around for a while and being in the top eight, he’s still waiting on a breakout win.

Not only is he without an epic victory, but I also think he’s yet to have a really courageous loss, like the one Alcaraz endured at the hands of Berrettini in Melbourne. He’s yet to stare down a huge deficit or a terrible matchup, walk the tightrope with a risky strategy to get out of it, and have a near miss. When I watch him play, I think of Andre Agassi’s declaration in Open that losses feel more intensely bad than wins feel good. Rublev never particularly seems like he’s having fun when he plays, besides the odd smile or two, and he almost always looks devastated when he loses. I fear for him a little bit, for when that inevitable shattering loss arrives. No one avoids it, and I think his mindset is going to amplify the pain.

*****

The name of the game in this era is that if you are not constantly improving, you will be overwhelmed. After Djokovic’s supreme 2011 in which he won three majors, he stagnated — only a bit — and won just one major each of the next three years. Last year, Djokovic understood that he couldn’t beat Nadal at Roland-Garros with the previous strategies he had used, so he changed: he lashed wickedly angled crosscourt forehands into Nadal’s backhand corner, made the Spaniard’s life hell for a couple hours, and came away with a historic victory. At the Australian Open this year, Nadal knew that he couldn’t win playing safely, so he started going for 100+ mph second serves, hit his backhand down the line into the corner, and he won. Even the best players in this era have to be prepared for humbling losses, for changing the way they play, because at some point or another, their best tennis has not been enough to dominate the tour.

I don’t expect Rublev, or anyone, to display the tactical mobility of Djokovic or Nadal (they are GOATs for a reason), but the Russian’s persona seems so at odds with any change whatsoever. His perfectionist mindset is admirable on the one hand, but he can be so tough on himself after his misses that it appears he thinks that if he plays well, he will beat anyone.

To be brutally honest, this is a terrible mindset at this time, against these players. There are a handful who are simply better than he is, so much so that no matter how well he executes his standard game, he will usually lose. He needs to adapt, because he is not good enough to beat Djokovic or Medvedev or Zverev or Nadal with any regularity. Is that an immensely humbling, difficult realization to come to? Yes. Is it an imperative realization if a player is to win a major against this field? You better believe it.

*****

Rublev is only 24. Things aren’t hopeless by any means. He will have many more years on the tour to try claiming a spot at the very top. Things can change quickly. Federer and Djokovic each spent a few years in the wilderness between intriguing prospect and dominant force before reaching the pinnacle of the sport. Not only that, but Rublev has struggled with depression amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and lost his grandmother in 2020, which couldn’t have had a positive impact on his tennis. Still, with his whole career in mind, even Rublev’s peak level doesn’t seem to be capable of winning the biggest trophies in the game, to the extent that even when he’s near his best, the best players in the world seem relatively unimpacted. His best tennis is surely ahead of him, I’m just not sure how much better it will be than the tennis he’s playing now.

Maybe Rublev will prove me wrong. Maybe there is a major winner somewhere inside him, and maybe his potential will become more evident over the next couple years. His improvement over the past couple has been incremental at best, though, and I’ve seen little that makes me think this is going to change significantly in the future.

Anyway, today Rublev lost to Felix Auger-Aliassime, who is currently ranked below him, though he won’t be for much longer. Rublev won a tight first set, then had three break points to take a decisive lead in the second. He lost them all, lost the second set, then lost the third going away. I tried to be sorry for him. Had he won, I would have tried to be happy for him. I didn’t learn anything new about him, and I don’t think I would have if he’d won, either.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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