At the end of 2020, Aslan Karatsev was ranked No. 112 in the world. The previous year, he had been World No. 289. The year before that, World No. 485. In 2017, he was 621st in the world.
2021 will see Karatsev finish within the Top-20 in the ATP rankings, as World No.18.
Usually, stories like these involve a young protagonist who bursts onto the scene with the vigor of youth, takes on the old guard and proclaims the arrival of a new era in the sport.
Or it involves a player who had been part of the upper echelons for a while, dropped off the face of the earth due to a cruel twist of fate and then comes back with a roar to prove the naysayers wrong.
Aslan Karatsev is neither.
The Russian's career-high ranking in the youth circuit was a mere 47th, despite winning the 2011 Russian Junior player of the year. Enterprising, but not exemplary.
At 28, in a sport where teenage prodigies surface daily and in a sport where the prime of an athlete is somewhere around 23 or 24, Karatsev is no longer young.
Everyone in the Top-10, except for Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, are within 25. Ahead of Karatsev, only Dominic Thiem (28) and Diego Schwartzmann (29) are anywhere close to his age.
Karatsev is no new phenom. He has been playing on the ATP tour since 2013. An injury and the resulting trauma from it had kept him out of the game for two years, but even before that, Karatsev had not made heads turn.
His first victory against a Top-50 player, for example, came against Tennys Sandgren in the 2020 St. Petersburg Open, where the Russian had been a wild card.
Aslan Karatsev's 2021 has been a year of many firsts
2021, however, has made every head turn towards Aslan Karatsev.
He made his Grand Slam debut in qualifying at the Australian Open. It was there that his name first began making the rounds in hushed whispers when he beat Diego Schwartzmann in the third round.
Regarding the game, former World No.4 Brad Gilbert was mightily impressed by the Russian and lavished praise on Karatsev for the way he played:
"He [Karatsev] just man-handled him. Schwartzman didn’t play bad, he didn’t lose. The guy just took it from him," Gilbert said.
Karatsev went on to beat 20th-seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round and 18th seed Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals, before losing to eventual winner Novak Djokovic in the semifinals.
It was the first time in the Open Era that someone reached a Grand Slam semifinal on their debut.
Aslan also won his first ATP Tour title this year at the Dubai World Tennis Championships. At the French Open, he reached the final of the mixed doubles with compatriot Elena Vesnina in his Grand Slam doubles debut.
Then, on his Olympic debut, Karatsev won the silver medal in the mixed doubles category with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. To top this all off, he won the Davis Cup Finals and ATP Cup with Russia.
The mini-cherry on top of the regular cherry on top of the cake that is Aslan Karatsev's 2021 is this - he has been nominated for the ATP Most Improved Player of the Year award, alongside Carlos Alcaraz, Casper Ruud and Cameron Norrie.
Alcaraz is 18, and went from World No.141 to World No. 32. Ruud is 22, and went from World No. 27 to 8. Norrie is 26, and went from World No.71 to World No.12.
They all deserve to win the award, sure, but are all also players whose careers have only been on an upward trend. They haven't seen the the lows that Karatsev has.
Aslan Karatsev's success is a result of trusting the process
Daniil Medvedev, his Davis Cup and ATP Cup teammate, who is never at a loss for words about anything, finds himself perplexed when it comes to Aslan Karatsev. All he has are the same questions as everyone else.
“I think nobody can understand. I'm honest. I think only he can try to explain at least what's going on,” Medvedev said.
Aslan Karatsev, nicknamed "The Lion" on social media for obvious Narnia-related reasons, shines some light on the reasons himself, if we read between the lines.
In the Serbian Open, not only did he beat Novak Djokovic in Serbia, he beat him in a venue called the "Novak Tennis Center", and he beat him after saving 23 out of 28 break points.
Speaking after the match, he was asked what he was thinking in those moments. And his answer was that he was just trying to focus and wasn't thinking.
"I wasn’t thinking at that moment. I was just trying to play, focus on my game. There was no time to think," Karatsev said.
While that may strike many as too simplistic, it is rather telling of the way Aslan Karatsev approaches, and has approached, things. All he does is focus on his game, and try to play his game.
As he himself admits, this was not an overnight success brought about by a singular change.
Karatsev spent years toiling away on the challenger circuit. He had to drop out of tennis academies because of financial troubles. He had to recover from injuries. He had to find a coach who complemented him and built his mental side up.
All of that took time, more time than it did for others who were more lucky than him. But the important thing is that he is here. Today.
In Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer, there is a poignant passage about steps and journey that fully captures the essence of Aslan Karatsev's 2021 - any athlete really - but more fitting at this moment for Karatsev than anyone else:
"The most important step a man can take. It's not the first one, is it? It's the next one. Always the next step.” - Brandon Sanderson, Oathbringer.
Aslan Karatsev thinks only about the next step. Or rather, he doesn't think about the next step. He simply takes them.