Can a statement be both ridiculous and enlightening at the same time? When Andrey Rublev hit a down-the-line backhand winner last month against Dominic Thiem in the Hamburg quarterfinals, the commentator couldn’t control his excitement. “Rublev’s down-the-line backhand is his signature shot!” he exclaimed, and you couldn't help but roll your eyes.
It seemed the commentator had forgotten that Rublev was the player with the atomic forehand, the one who had ridden that single shot all the way to the US Open quarterfinals two years ago as a teenager. To those of us who had been following Rublev’s career with interest, the idea that anything other than his forehand could be considered his signature shot sounded preposterous.
But as Rublev kept pounding his backhand for winners, especially while passing, I kept going back to that ‘signature shot’ line and marveling at how dramatically he had shored up his backhand. Once a glaring weakness, the Rublev backhand was suddenly looking rock-solid at both offense and defense, and Thiem seemed to have no idea how to break his younger opponent down in the longer rallies.
On Thursday in Cincinnati, Roger Federer faced a similar problem. Federer was playing Rublev for the first time, so it was perhaps understandable that he got burned by the force of the Russian’s forehand early on. But when he tried flipping the patterns, going low or high in either direction, he was met with the same response: a Rublev groundstroke so quick and accurate that there was no way to turn the point to his advantage.
It ended up being Federer’s quickest defeat (62 minutes) in more than a decade and a half; the last time the Swiss lost a match in an hour or less was back in 2003. But it is unlikely that his opponent at that time, Franco Squillari, had taken the racquet out of Federer’s hands quite as spectacularly as Rublev did.
“He was super clean,” Federer said of Rublev after the match. “Defence, offence, serving well. Didn’t give me anything. He was everywhere.”
Federer’s post-match press conferences have been getting increasingly educational in this late-career phase of his, but he was merely stating the obvious in his assessment of the Russian. It wasn’t hard to see that Rublev was better than Federer in every single department.
The Swiss didn’t play badly. He was a little reckless with his net approaches, but he didn’t exactly stink up the joint with errors – he made 19 of them across the two sets, against 20 winners. And he still looked utterly incapable of making a dent in his opponent’s game.
That doesn’t happen too often with the 20-time Slam champion.
This was just the second match for Federer since his soul-crushing Wimbledon loss to Novak Djokovic, so a bit of a hangover wasn’t totally unexpected. What was unexpected though was that he’d run into a red-lining opponent so early in his first tournament back.
Still, this isn’t necessarily a sign of doom for him. A third-round exit is certainly a setback in his preparations for the US Open, but as he said after the match, he “should be fine” with a little more practice and training.
The Swiss has played enough matches in his career, and faced enough epic disappointments, to be able to rebound from those squandered match points against Djokovic. By the time he reaches New York he will likely be in less of a rush to finish points as he was in both of his matches this week in Cincinnati, and that should hold him in good stead.
In any case, Thursday's contest was less about Federer and more about Rublev. When the Russian stepped up to serve for the match at 6-3, 5-4, you couldn’t help but think that this was the moment of truth for him. Off the ground he had bullied the presumptive GOAT for an hour, but did he have it in him to use perhaps his weakest shot, the serve, to get him over the line?
We didn’t have to wait long to find out because, just like his backhand, the 21-year-old’s serve isn’t a glaring weakness anymore. Yes, his second serve still sits up sometimes (and Federer crushed a fair few of them for clean winners), but the first serve has improved beyond recognition.
Rublev has been getting a ton of free points off his first serve all summer, and against Federer it was a continuation of that trend. Using better disguise and precision, he regularly wrong-footed the Swiss to compile an impressive 82% winning rate on the first serve (compared to Federer’s 63%). And in the last game of each set he came up with enough first serves to make closing it out a formality.
“In my head I was just trying to say ‘Don’t look at my team, don’t look at the score, don’t look at Roger.’ I just tried to be more relaxed,” Rublev said of the jitters he experienced down the home stretch, but he didn’t look remotely as nervous as that on the outside.
He also didn’t look like a man perpetually battling for fitness and confidence at any point in the match. And yet those two things – fitness and confidence – are exactly why he has taken so long to build on the 2017 US Open run and register the first top-3 win of his career.
Rublev had reached a career-high ranking of 31 in early 2018, and at the time looked set to join the head of the Next Gen class and jostle for supremacy with the likes of Alexander Zverev and Karen Khachanov. But a lower back stress fracture derailed all his plans, forcing him to miss both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and it has been an uphill climb ever since.
“It was an incredibly tough time for me which led to some depression. Since the injury was in my back I wasn’t allowed to do anything for the first two months…I missed the sport so much and all I wanted to do was compete. I clearly remember nothing else at the time was making me happy,” Rublev said in a heartfelt Instagram post last month, and it put into perspective his struggles over the last year and a half.
Even when he did return to the tour in late 2018, his confidence seemed to have vanished completely. He kept losing in qualifying or in the first round of tournaments, slipping out of the top 100, and it wasn’t clear where his moment of inspiration was going to come from.
As it turned out though, all he needed was more match practice. By 2019 he was winning matches again, reaching the third round in both Indian Wells and Miami (after going through qualifying). He then gave eventual champion Fabio Fognini all he could handle in the Monte Carlo second round - again after coming through qualifying.
Another injury setback – a wrist problem this time – forced him to sit out of Roland Garros. But since Wimbledon his steady climb back to relevance has been unmistakable.
The serve and the backhand have surprised us with their newfound potency for pretty much the whole of this month. And of course, the forehand has been just as deadly as ever. The enormous take-back that makes it seem he is wielding an axe rather than a racquet, the forward swing that’s so quick it looks like a blur, the explosive pace that makes the ball take off like a missile after hitting the ground – it’s all in fine working order again, and giving opponents fits everywhere.
Rublev’s forehand is arguably the best shot among all of the Next Gen players, and it is starting to make an appropriate impact now. And if it continues to be backed by the other areas of his game, forcing commentators to get confused about what his signature weapon really is, then the rest of the tour is in for a world of pain.
Updated Date: Aug 16, 2019 22:10:56 IST