(JTA) — Aslan Karatsev, a Russian tennis player with Jewish heritage who lived in Israel for nearly a decade, is making history at the Australian Open.
It’s his first appearance in a grand slam tournament, and he had to get in by playing well in the contest’s preceding qualifying tournament. Now he’s in the semifinals.
He is only the second qualifier in history to make it to the Australian Open semifinals, the fifth qualifier to reach a grand slam semifinal in the so-called Open Era (beginning in 1968) and the first-ever male player to reach the semifinals in their grand slam debut.
En route to the semifinals, the 27-year-old defeated Jewish top-10 star Diego Schwartzman in the third round, top-20 Canadian youngster Felix Auger Aliassime in the fourth and veteran Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals. He now faces the no. 1 seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic in the semifinals.
For his part, Karatsev was ranked 253 in the world after tennis resumed play last year after a pandemic break. Now he’s 114, and no matter the result against Djokovic, he will break the top 50. (If he wins, he’ll make the top 30.)
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Karatsev said after his latest win.
➡️Ranked #253 after the pandemic break
➡️Qualified in Doha
➡1st *ever* player to reach the SFs on his Grand Slam debut
➡️5th ever qualifier to reach a Slam SF.
➡️ Will rise to inside the top 50 next Monday.
One of the best stories in recent years pic.twitter.com/WzJ63tHCmp— José Morgado (@josemorgado) February 16, 2021
Karatsev was born in the North Caucasus region of Russia. His maternal grandfather is Jewish, and when he was three years old, his family moved to Israel, where he began to play tennis. He lived there until he was 12, saying that the Israel Tennis Association’s lack of funding was a major factor pushing him to leave.
“I moved to Israel when I was three years old with my family and then I started to practice in Yafo, Tel Aviv-Yafo,” Karatsev explained in a recent press conference. “I grew up there, practicing there until 12 years old, and then I moved back to Russia with my father.”
His mother and sister remained in Israel. After moving to Rostov, Russia, for better tennis training, he moved on to Moscow, then to Halle, Germany, then to Barcelona, Spain, before finally ending up in Minsk, Belarus, where he lives today. Despite all the moves, Karatsev still has an Israeli passport and speaks fluent Hebrew.
The Australian Jewish news reported that last September, Amir Weintraub, an Israeli tennis player, and Avi Peretz, chair of the Israel Tennis Association, tried to convince Karatsev to play internationally for Israel. However, that was not possible, as Karatsev had already signed up to compete with the Russian team in the Davis Cup tournament that pits teams of players from different countries against each other, Olympics style.
The gap between the semifinalists could not be wider. Djokovic, one of the most famous tennis players of all time, has 8 Australian Open titles — whereas Karatsev has 8 career ATP wins.
(Ranked at world no. 114, he becomes the lowest-ranked man in the semifinals since Goran Ivanisevic, 125, at Wimbledon in 2001 — and in a twist, Ivanisevic now coaches Djokovic.)
“I’m trying to enjoy the moment, not thinking about it too much, just playing from round to round,” Karatsev said Tuesday.