Q1 Review: Russian Takeover, Djokovic Takes Record & Federer Returns

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The first quarter of the 2021 ATP Tour season was a history-make affair, with new and familiar faces grabbing headlines.

Novak Djokovic set records at the Australian Open and atop the FedEx ATP Rankings. Daniil Medvedev made a rankings statement of his own and at the ATP Cup led Russia to glory alongside Andrey Rublev and former ‘secret weapon’ Aslan Karatsev, who came from obscurity to become one of the season’s hottest players.

NextGen ATP Finals champion Jannik Sinner, 19, surged to the cusp of the Top 20 after a run to the Miami Open final, where Hubert Hurkacz became the first Pole to win an ATP Masters 1000 event. Emerging stars Sebastian Korda and Lorenzo Musetti (one of nine Italians in the Top 10) also turned heads in Q1.

And, of course, the tennis world rejoiced in the return of Roger Federer after more than a year on the sidelines.

Below, ATPTour.com reflects on a head-turning start to the 2021 season.

1) Russians Sound Intentions At ATP Cup
There were few surprises when Daniil Medvedev hit the ground running in 2021. As the most in-form player at the end of 2020, he continued where he left off in Australia as he guided Russia to its maiden ATP Cup title over Italy. 

Alongside Andrey Rublev, the pair conceded only two sets combined as they won all eight singles matches they contested. With victory over Matteo Berrettini in the opening rubber of the final, the then 24-year-old Medvedev carried a 14-match winning streak into the Australian Open (10 of those victories coming against Top 10 opponents). 

Rublev sealed the trophy when he trounced Fabio Fognini. Little did anyone realise, the man the Russians anointed their “secret weapon”, unheralded doubles teammate Aslan Karatsev, was about to embark on a breakout run of his own. More on that later.

Djokovic Pulls Clear As All-Time No. 1
Novak Djokovic won a record-extending ninth Australian Open trophy (his 18th major crown) in February, closing the gap on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s tied mark of 20 Grand Slam titles. In March, fans poured onto the streets in Belgrade to honour the 33-year-old as he returned home to a hero’s welcome having surpassed Federer for the most all-time weeks at No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. 

“It really excites me to walk the path of legends and giants of this sport,” Djokovic said. “To know that I have earned my place among them by following my childhood dream is a beautiful confirmation that when you do things out of love and passion, everything is possible.”

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Djokovic, who celebrated his 311th week in pole position, first rose to the top on 4 July 2011, after he beat Nadal in that year’s Wimbledon final. 

Medvedev Ends 16-Year Reign, Becomes New No. 2
Following a blistering start to the season, in which he went unbeaten in Russia’s successful ATP Cup campaign and reached his second Grand Slam final at the Australian Open, Medvedev fell one match shy of becoming the new No. 2 in the FedEx ATP Rankings against Djokovic. He wouldn’t have to wait long to ascend to that spot, though.

The Russian captured his 10th ATP Tour title at the Open 13 Provence in Marseille and officially displaced Nadal as World No. 2 the following day. He was the first player other than Djokovic, Federer, Nadal or Andy Murray to occupy one of the top two spots since 2005.

“It’s been already one week, I could feel maybe pressure, [but] no. I feel like it just gives me some energy boost,” Medvedev said in Miami, where he was the top seed at a Masters 1000 event for the first time. “I just want to play better and better to prove to myself I deserve this.” 

Rublev Running Hot
Where many find fear crippling, Russian No. 2 Rublev finds no greater motivating force. The 23-year-old has won more tour-level matches in 2021 (20-4 for the season) than any other player, highlighted by his unbeaten run in Russia’s successful ATP Cup campaign and an eighth ATP Tour title in Rotterdam.

The 23-year-old’s victory over Marton Fucsovics in the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament final in Rotterdam extended his winning streak at ATP 500 events to 20 matches, before countryman Karatsev ended that run at 23 wins in the semi-finals in Dubai. It was Rublev’s seventh straight victory in an ATP Tour final.

“It’s this kind of fear that it’s not enough,” Rublev said. “Fear that I’m not going to make it or fear that I’m not going to be good enough for a while. In the end, this fear helped me to improve, and that’s why I want to improve and improve.”

Rublev also made his first Masters 1000 semi-final at the Miami Open presented by Itau. He is currently third in the FedEx ATP Race To Turin, trailing only Djokovic and Medvedev.

Karatsev Breaks Through & Backs It Up
It all could have been so different for the late-blooming Russian. The 27-year-old had won through Australian Open qualifying in Doha to seal his first Grand Slam main draw berth, but had he caught his original charter flight, in which passengers tested positive for COVID-19, Karatsev would have entered a two-week hard lockdown instead of being able to practise. 

Ranked No. 253 in the FedEx ATP Rankings only a year ago, Karatsev beat eighth seed Diego Schwartzman, 18th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime and 20th seed Grigor Dimitrov en route to becoming the first man in the Open Era to reach the semi-finals at a major on debut. 

Despite falling to eventual champion Djokovic, Karatsev consolidated the hype with his maiden ATP Tour title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, snapping second seed Rublev’s 23-match winning streak at ATP 500-level in the process. He now sits in sixth place in the FedEx ATP Race to Turin.

“Had you told me this I would not have believed it,” he said. “You are just [kidding] yourself. With success, you never know when it’s coming, but I always believed I could make it.”  

Young Guys Make Their Moves 
Leading the ATP Race to Milan, #NextGenATP Italian Jannik Sinner claimed his second ATP Tour title at the Great Ocean Road Open in Melbourne and found his best form at last week’s Miami Open presented by Itau, where he reached his maiden ATP Masters 1000 final to climb to a career-high World No. 23. “You’re not a human, man. You’re 15 years old and you play like this? Good job,” the 19-year-old’s quarter-final victim Alexander Bublik told him. 

#NextGenATP American Sebastian Korda was another who made huge inroads in Miami. The 20-year-old son of former Czech World No. 2 Petra Korda reached his first Masters 1000 quarter-final in Miami, where he claimed his first Top 20 win over Fabio Fognini and first Top 10 scalp against Diego Schwartzman before a defeat to Rublev.

Sinner’s countryman and fellow 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti also scored his first Top 10 victory against Schwartzman en route to a maiden ATP 500 semi-final in Acapulco in March. Following his breakout run, the teenager impressed again in Miami by making the third round.

One of Argentina’s next great hopes, Juan Manuel Cerundolo, landed a breakthrough result on home soil. World No. 335 entering the Cordoba Open, Cerundolo had never won an ATP Tour match. But the lefty qualified and claimed his maiden tour-level title, beating Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the final.

Having become the youngest player to qualify for a Grand Slam main draw since Djokovic in 2005, Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz was then the first player born in 2003 to win a main draw match at a major at the Australian Open. The 17-year-old, who practised with Rafael Nadal ahead of his debut, also beat top seed David Goffin for his first Top 15 victory at the Great Ocean Road Open leading in.

Federer Returns
Thirteen months since he last took the court, the 39-year-old Swiss made his long-awaited return to competition in Doha, following two knee surgeries. There were promising signs as the 103-time tour-level champion defeated tricky Brit Daniel Evans — a frequent practice partner — before letting a match point slip in a three-set defeat to eventual champion Nikoloz Basilashvili. 

Federer elected to withdraw from Dubai and his Miami title defence to return to practice.

“I think a lot of my close friends and people around me were waiting for this return and that I finally did it and I was able to even win it,” said Federer. “I think some people didn’t expect that because they know what I went through. It was like winning a big tournament. Messages would keep coming in.”

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