Off Topic Surprise: Aslan Karatsev and how self- image can mask ability.

Tennis. Not something I normally bother to commit thoughts on, but there is a surprise in tennis sufficiently intriguing that I am creating a page to track. This a story of how someone of amazing ability, can exist in obscurity, most likely in this case due to hurdles created by their own mind.

Right now there is a story rocking the tennis world, being called ‘man of the hour‘ and even ‘Rocky Balboa of tennis‘.

Aslan Karatsev, a professional tennis player with the raw ability to be mixing it with Federer Nadal Djokovic etc, was in close to total obscurity for the first 10 years of his pro career (he has had a ranking since 2011), before a meteoric rise from nothing to being one of the most talked about players in 2021.

The Rise.

Aslan Karatsev came to my, and many other people’s, attention during the 2021 Australian Open, however his actual rise started in 2020. After a dismal 2019 that included 11 straight consecutive losses, Karatsev rose from raked with

  • Jan 2020: Ranking 292.
  • March 16: Tennis goes into ‘hibernation’ due to pandemic.
    • Ranking 253
  • Aug 2020: Tennis resumes after shutdown due to pandemic.
    • Ranking 194
    • Runner Up to Stan Wawrinka: Prague Challenger
    • Wins: Prague Challenger II
    • Wins: Ostrava Challenger
      • 31 Aug – 07 Sep 2020. Ostrava, Czech Republic.
    • Year end ranking: 112
  • Jan 2021: Enters Australian Open Qualifying.
  • Feb 2021: Enters Australian Open having qualified.
    • Ranking 111 on entry.
    • Defeats 3 top 20 players. (Schwartzman, Auger-Alissime, Dimitrov)
    • Become first player in ‘open era’ to reach semi-finals on debut.
    • Loses to eventual winner Novak Djokovic in Semi-final.

Following the Australian open Karatsev is ranked 42 in the world. A rise the rankings of 150 places. But it is not over. See risen for his progress following the Australian open.

The Baffling Years Of Obscurity.

Not Just Injuries.

Injuries have played a role in derailing the career of Karatsev so far, but injuries just can’t explain it all. True, there was a time when he was constantly plagued by knee injuries and reportedly almost gave up tennis for that reason. But injuries do not explain things like the run of 11 losses in 2019, as this was after recovery from the knee injuries. Or they years before the knee injuries when, prior to being injured, he still remained far below the top 100, despite now revealing an ability to play at top 10 level now. Something was also holding him back prior to the injuries.

Not Match Fixing.

While I have not seen this in the press, I have seen a small number of individuals online who have made the association between a Russian player with contradictory results, and match fixing. There are two separate questions raised:

  • Q: Could match fixing explain the years of obscurity? A: No
  • Q: Did he ever participate in match fixing? A: Hard to disprove, but it seems extremely unlikely.

The case of Nikolay Davydenko, who came under investigation for suspicion of match fixing while ranked #6 in the world but was ultimately exonerated, proves that neither fans nor the authorities feel there is any reason to be believe involvement in match fixing requires deliberately keeping rankings artificially low. Further, no player ever even formally accused of match fixing has had a ranking significantly below their demonstrated ability.

In summary, there is no logic to any suggestion that Karatsev was artificially lowly ranked due to involvement with match fixing. As the focus of this page is on mind-set, that is all that any other points made here rely on. If, during the times when Karatsev was struggling with earnings because of his inability to produce results, Karatsev at that time having been involved in match-fixing would make no difference to the points made here about why he was not producing results, but that said, it also seems extremely unlikely that any involvement in match fixing ever occurred involving Karatsev. Whatever that truth, it is absolutely clear that there is anything like this at the root of him being a player of great ability, who has not been able to translate that ability into results in the past.

Why would Karatsev be a bad choice for match fixing involvement? The next step is to consider why choose a player not able to deliver on their promise as a partner in match fixing. A player who we now know to be extremely talented, that has not been able to deliver on the promise of that talent. Logically a player who is very talented, but has mixed results, is going to produce unpredictable results, but not be in a position to himself control when to produce those results. Not proof of innocence, but making him one of the worst choices on tour to recruit into match fixing, and also explaining past unexpected results. Overall, it just does not add up, despite some highly variable results.

Yes, Mental Hurdles: Self Belief, Confidence, Self Image.

As shown in quotes in the section below further exploring the mental hurdles present in sport, Karatsev himself has revealed that multiple coaches have previously indicated his underperformance was linked to his mindset, but did not provide a solution. Karatsev credits his new coach has working with him on mindset, as the reason for recent improvement. Nerves, crisis of confidence are well know to affect player performance. Karatsev, but making his overall improvement, just highlights what is already well established: confidence and mental attitude plays a highly significant role in success in sport.

Risen: The Ongoing Story.

This section will continue to track the rise of Karatsev and his performance since that rise, with specific attention to the, although now reduce, continuing impact of losses in confidence.

  • Jan 2021: Enters Australian Open Qualifying.
  • Feb 2021: Enters Australian Open.
    • Ranked 42 following Austalian Open
  • March 2021: Loses Doha 2nd Round to world #4 Dominic Thiem
    • Ranking still remains at 42, but Thiem had a battle.
    • Wins Doha doubles as partner to Rublev
  • March 2021: Wins Dubai 500 level tournament.
  • Next…. Miami (1,000 level) ….stay tuned!

What does this say about professional sports stars?

The rise of Aslan Karatsev proves that players with immense talent can exist in complete obscurity. It seems the players we celebrate may not even be the most talented, but the players who combine talent and the ‘mental’ mindset that maximises their performance.

The concern is that the mental self belief required as part of this mental mindset mean that many of those who are celebrated may be also arrogant, overly self centred and terrible role models. In fact in celebrating sports heroes, we may often be, as often as not, celebrating the wrong people. I will expand on this a the Karatsev story also evolves.

Overcoming mental hurdles: Self-Image and Self-Esteem.

The Wider Role Of Self-Image and Self-Esteem.

Considering we live in a world where the ‘influence industry‘ which profits significantly from destruction of self esteem is now one of the dominant forces in society, the role of self-esteem in achieving personal fulfillment becomes especially significant for society. I will continue to explore this point.,


Karatsev is far from alone in failing to master the mental aspects of the game, but he could be a rather extreme example who highlights how significant the role of the mental side of the game can be. I will expand on this section.

“I always felt I had the game,” he told, knowing he’ll enter the Top 100 after this fortnight. “But it was more the mental part that I had to improve. I’m not saying that we didn’t work on the game, but mostly targeting the mental part. Like how you behave, and how you play every point, how you prepare yourself for the next point.

“I had coaches in the past that were saying like, ‘everything in your head,’ a lot of talking like, ‘you have to improve your mental part.’ It’s easy to say, you have to improve your mental part. But the tough thing is how you can do it, how you manage it. So, I found a coach that we manage it together and it works. How you’re gonna improve it – this is the key.”

Mental gains key to Karatsev breakthrough

A late bloomer by anyone’s definition, Karatsev spent the better part of a decade globetrotting for training and, eventually, competing in the ITF Futures and ATP Challenger tours. He almost gave up on the sport four years ago when he was continually hampered by knee injuries.

“That was a difficult time for me because I recovered after [a previous] injury, and then 2017 started, and I start to play again, and again. I felt the knee, and I said, ‘Whoa,'” Karatsev said. “I quit again for two and a half months, almost three, and I think it [was] the most difficult part [of my career].”

But something seemed to click once he connected with coach Yahor Yatsyk almost three years ago.

“In the end, I found [Yatsyk] and this is the right guy for me,” Karatsev said. “He’s helped me a lot, more on the mental part, and then of course, there is the technical stuff, as well. I was really lucky to find him — we just met in one tournament. I played Futures, and we were saying, ‘OK, let’s try to work together.'”

Who is Aslan Karatsev? Inside the Cinderella story of the Australian Open

“I’m feeling good on the court, the way how I [have] competed, the way how I [have] played,” Karatsev said. “The Australian Open gave me for sure confidence.”

“Last week I lost to Thiem, also had good chances. I lost in three sets, but I arrived here playing with confidence, playing a really good game,” Karatsev said. “[I am] looking forward to playing the final.”

ATP web site.


to follow after early April after Miami tournament.

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