INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The Sunshine Double is a bit of an unlikely place for talented 21-year-old Andrey Rublev to kickstart his comeback.
He has not won many matches on the American swing. In fact, he was joking after a 6-2, 7-5 victory over Canadian Peter Polansky in the Oracle Challenger this week that he’s been to the desert three or four times, and hasn’t won a single match.
In fact, he won one – 7-5 in the third, against No. 277 Somdev Devvaarman, in the first round of qualifying in his very first visit back in 2016.
But after almost a “lost” year in 2018 because of a stress fracture in his back, Rublev is back.
And his Challenger prep for next week’s BNP Paribas Open qualifying has gone perfectly. Rublev is in Sunday’s singles final.
The only problem is that instead of facing a rank-and-file Challenger player, he’ll be up against … No. 27 Kyle Edmund, who was a career best No. 14 to start the 2019 season but has had his own injury woes.
Out of the top 100
A year ago, Rublev was on a track similar to some of friends and contemporaries. Old friend Alexander Zverev, also 21, is already there in the top five. Fellow Russian Karen Khachanov found himself just outside the top 10.
Rublev was sitting at home, wearing a corset.
“To be honest, I hadn’t even looked at the rankings since last year in Acapulco. And then I got injured. Then, during Davis Cup, they put your ranking with your name. And that’s how I found out I was out of the top 100,” Rublev told Tennis.Life.
“It’s okay. You can’t do anything about it. You have to accept that, because I didn’t play for a long time. But now I’m playing full. I’m playing every week, and hopefully everything is going to break. It’s just about good weeks, good wins, good tournaments. If I do well, everything can change in two weeks.”
Almost back in top 100
Already, with straight-set wins over John-Patrick Smith, Polansky, Alex Bolt and, on Saturday, the resurgent Dan Evans (6-2, 6-2), Rublev is almost back inside the top 100. Even if he loses to Edmund in Sunday’s final, he’ll be two spots away.
If he wins, he would be somewhere around No. 95, and full of confidence heading into the BNP Paribas Open qualifying on Tuesday.
Rublev said he almost felt as though he lost a year. That might not seem like much from the outside, when you’re talking about a 21-year-old kid. But when you measure yourself against your equally-talented peers, and you know you’re as good as they are, it must have felt even longer than that sitting at home in that corset.
“That was my feeling. Even before, all the guys were doing well, and during these three months I felt I was just losing time. And even when I started to play my first tournament, my feeling was that something is wrong, looks like I’m not even there. Was really tough to take this feeling back, to feel now I’m here, I’m in my place,” Rublev said. “You completely forget this feeling, how to win … But now it’s getting better and better.”
Good start to 2018 gone wrong
Rublev started 2018 with a flash, reaching the final in Doha before the Australian Open. He lost twice over the winter to Grigor Dimitrov, who was on a good run of form. Then, he lost in the first round in Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami and after Monte Carlo, he was off the Tour because of the back.
A good draw in D.C. (Tommy Paul, Noah Rubin, Denis Kudla) got him to the semifinals and kept his ranking in the top 50. But first-round losses in seven of his next eight tournaments set him back.
The Next Gen Finals in Milan in November, against his peers, was encouraging despite the exhibition mode and the shortened-sets format. He defeated Jaume Munar and Taylor Fritz in five sets to make the semifinals, where he lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in five sets.
Tsitsipas, as we know, will enter the top 10 on Monday.
Qualifying at the big events
The drop in ranking fortunes means Rublev has to qualify for all but the smaller ATP Tour events. So the road is a little harder.
But if he can, he can make up ground quickly with the few points he has to defend until August.
Rublev adds a dash of excitement and millennial angst to the Tour. When he smiles – and he smiles often – his face looks angelic. On court, under duress, all of the Russian drama flows out and that same face turns fierce.
He’s one of those players that the other players will turn out to watch, just because he can be so spectacular and hits the ball so very, very hard. He’s not at that stage where he’s beaten the very best players yet. But he has that ability.
If and when he gets back to where he should be, he’s an integral part of the game’s future.
“You never know, this injury, maybe it even helped me to be better a year from now,” Rublev said. “Next year, Maybe without injury, I would be not that good. We will see.”