© Peter Staples/ATP Tour

Andrey Rublev defeats Christopher O'Connell in four sets to reach the second round of the Australian Open.

Kafelnikov On Rublev: 'He’s Going To Do Some Damage'

Former World No. 1 discusses 22-year-old's strong start to 2020

After Andrey Rublev won his second title in as many weeks to start the 2020 season on Saturday in Adelaide, the Russian took care of his media obligations, rushed back to the hotel to grab his luggage, and went straight to the airport, where his team boarded a small plane to Melbourne. In the first two weeks of the year, he went 8-0 with the loss of just two sets on two continents, capturing his third and fourth ATP Tour trophies.

After that, you might have expected Rublev’s coach, Fernando Vicente, to try to centre his charge ahead of the Australian Open. But according to Rublev, they really haven’t had time to take in all he's accomplished so far this season, and that may not be a bad thing.

“The only thing he said is, ‘This is the tennis life, that they don’t even give you time to enjoy it.’ You just finish the tournament and you already have to think about the first match in Australia,” Rublev said. “Football players when they finish [their league], at least they have a few days to celebrate.”

Former World No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov follows his 22-year-old countryman closely, and he is happy with what he’s been seeing so far in 2020. One match caught the International Tennis Hall of Famer’s eye in particular.

In the Adelaide International semi-finals, Rublev let slip two match points in the second set against #NextGenATP star Felix Auger-Aliassime, and then fell behind by a break in the decider. But the Russian, who in the past might have fallen apart in that match, not only won it, but dropped just three games in the next day’s final.

“Coming back in that match against Felix showed me something; that he’s getting mature and he values pretty much every match that he steps on the court for right now,” Kafelnikov said. “That’s a good sign of the player that belongs in at least the Top 20 for sure.”

Rublev began his season in Doha, then quickly flew to Adelaide, thousands of miles away. But after that semi-final match, there was another twist to the plot.

“When I came back to my room, the room was really hot and I put on the AC for all the night and when I woke up in the morning I felt completely cold and I felt like maybe I would get sick. But I was feeling fine... When I finished the final, after 20 minutes, I started to feel completely sick,” Rublev said. “After two days I started to feel much better. I feel well, but the immune system is a little bit down so the energy is not the same. But I hope this match is going to help me and after tomorrow I will be ready.”

Rublev defeated home favourite Christopher O’Connell in four sets to reach the second round of the Australian Open, where he is the No. 17 seed. Judging by his performance so far this year, not only does he have the potential to be one of the most dangerous players in the draw, but he is still scratching the surface of what he is capable of.

“I think his footwork needs to get better... his first serve at times could be okay, but his second serve could be fragile, which many top players understand. Those are the two areas in which I want him to improve the most. If he does that, my God, he’s going to do some damage on the Tour for sure,” Kafelnikov said. “I think his whole game, it just has some elements of playing junior tennis, hitting the ball harder and harder. If he improves in those two departments, his footwork and second serve, his whole game is going to change. He’s going to value points a bit differently than he’s doing right now and I think it’s going to come with experience and we’re going to see this in 2020.”

On Monday, Rublev climbed to a career-high World No. 16 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, surpassing Karen Khachanov as the No. 2 Russian. That’s a strong effort for a young player who has struggled with injuries over the past two years, missing three months in 2018 because of a lower back stress fracture, and more than a month last year due to a wrist injury.

“Andrey and his camp obviously understand now that you need to take care of the body first to be able to compete on such a top level. I think they’ve done that. He’s gotten healthier right now and mainly he’s focussing on his physical condition, which is going to help him to play consistently throughout the season,” Kafelnikov said. “That’s absolutely showing me that he’s stepping up a level compared to what he was in 2018 or 2019 even.”

One improvement Rublev has seemingly made is his performance against lower-ranked opponents. During one stretch last season, six of eight losses he suffered came against opponents outside of the Top 100. Starting 2020 with his long journey from Doha to Adelaide, it would have been understandable for him to suffer a letdown. But now after defeating O’Connell in Melbourne, he is 9-0 on the year, and he is showing no signs of slowing down.

“His confidence level rose unbelievably high. Before we have seen in the past that Andrey was not such a player where he was most of the time beating the players who he should have beaten,” Kafelnikov said. “But this year he has proven that his level has risen to the point where we aren’t seeing him losing to the guys who he is not supposed to lose to. That’s a good sign, and he believes that he has the level where he doesn’t need to play 100 per cent to beat the guys that he should beat. I think that’s important.”

One of Rublev’s strengths is that he’s not thinking about his success. The two-time Next Gen ATP Finals competitor is happy with how he’s playing, but he’s focussed on the process of improving, and not celebrating his results.

“I remember in Doha I was a little bit stressed before the matches. I was not playing for one month and a half since Davis Cup, so I was feeling a little bit stressed like, ‘I don’t want to lose in the first round [of the] first tournament,’” Rublev said. “The first match I was really tight, I was really nervous. But then I said okay, let’s see one match by match. Somehow everything went by itself. I was not even thinking or focussed about it.”

Could the big-hitting Russian channel his form into a major run in Melbourne? Rublev has enjoyed success on the big stage before, in 2017 becoming the youngest US Open quarter-finalist since 19-year-old Andy Roddick in 2001.

“I’m not even thinking about it. This is something that I never focus [on] because in the end our sport you have to lose every week. Every week [there] is only one champion so you cannot always win,” Rublev said. “Of course guys like Roger, Rafa, they can make a season with a long series where they do finals, where they win almost every time, but still they are losing. All of them are here, so there is only going to be one champion.”

- Jonathon Braden contributed reporting to this story.