Tennis players, in the very public crucible of the arena, often grow up before our eyes. Their brilliance is in plain sight – but so are the challenges of overcoming youthful emotion. Maturity, hopefully, comes sooner rather than later. For some, it may never come at all.
Back in March, playing Taylor Fritz in the semi-finals of the ATP Masters 1000 in Indian Wells, Rublev’s emotions burst into view, creating a viral moment. Down 5-6, he hit a shot into the net that cost him the first set. Furious, the fiery redhead smashed a ball high into the air and proceeded to punish the offending racket. He punched the strings with such force that he opened up a gash on his right hand; the blood led to a medical timeout before he dropped the second set and, ultimately, the match.
Four months ago, the 24-year-old posted on social media that big changes were coming.
At this week’s Astana Open in Kazakhstan, he spoke openly in an ATP Media interview about his continuing education in the pursuit of maturity. He is especially proud of the way he carried himself in a volatile third-round match at this year’s US Open against Denis Shapovalov.
“Everyone has their own weaknesses,” he said. “My weakness is mental and little by little there are some improvements. [Before] I would already explode and because of that lose the match. But even in the moment it looks impossible to [maintain composure], I was able to do it. It was giving me a turning moment and I was able to win the match. I was feeling a bit proud of myself after the match, I’ll be honest. I showed on court I was better as a person. But I don’t want to focus on that. It’s like `OK, go back to reality, and you still have this problem there – go fix it.’”
Rublev won in a fifth-set tie-break in an epic match that ran longer than four hours before falling to Frances Tiafoe in the quarter-finals. That was the last match he played before arriving in Astana.
By most standards, 2022 has been a terrific year for Rublev. He’s already won 40 matches and three titles – in Marseille, Dubai and Belgrade, defeating Novak Djokovic in that final. And yet, considering his high aspirations, quarter-final berths at Roland Garros and the US Open were disappointing.
If the seeds had held into the quarter-final round, Rublev would have had an immediate opportunity to prove himself at the elite level, for he would have faced Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old World No. 1. As it turned out, his friend and frequent practice partner was stunned by lucky loser David Goffin in a straight-sets first-round upset.
Rublev says he’s serious about self-improvement. You could see it after his first-round match at the National Tennis Center. Nearly 30 minutes after defeating Djere, he was still signing autographs and taking selfies with the fans.
He understands that emotions are part of being a human being. Rublev offered the examples of a waiter bringing the wrong dish, or a car cutting you off on the highway.
“You say all the bad things about the guy,” Rublev said. “Most of the people in life are like this. That’s how athletes are, too.
“I have a good game to be on the next level – and I’m the one who stopped myself from this. [In New York] I was better on court as a person, better as a player, more professional. I was able to handle tight moments. It takes time.”