History is relentless – and, ultimately, undefeated – but as Andrey Rublev discovered Saturday afternoon in Mason, Ohio, sometimes it can be re-written by those bold enough to challenge what has passed before.
Coming into his Western & Southern Open semi-final with fellow Russian Daniil Medvedev, the 23-year-old had lost each of the four ATP-level matches between them – and all 10 sets. When the No.1 seed took the first set rather easily, it looked like more of the same.
But Rublev rallied famously and, perhaps helped by a jarring Medvedev collision with a television camera, dramatically altered the narrative with a 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory.
He’ll face Alexander Zverev – himself a dramatic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (4) winner over Stefanos Tsitsipas – in a delectable Sunday final (4:30 p.m., ET). The gold medallist at the Tokyo Olympics was down a double break at 1-4 in the third set and, despite suffering severe gastric distress, managed a remarkable comeback to extend his winning streak to 10 matches.
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What would it mean to Rublev to win his first Masters 1000 event?
“Of course it will be special, and especially this place that I have such great memories that many things happen here that help me also and change a bit myself,” Rublev said in his post-match press conference. “But we’ll see. I’m not thinking this way.
“This week was already, is amazing for me. It’s one more amazing memory in my head. I’m going to do my best tomorrow, and that’s all I can say.”
Rublev will have yet another opportunity to re-write his personal history.
The No.3-seeded Zverev, like Medvedev coming into the semi-finals, leads the ATP Head2Head 4-0 (and 9-0 in sets), with the most recent victory coming in the fourth round of the Australian Open, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
“Yeah, he’s playing the tennis of his life, I think beating Daniil, who is in incredible form right now,” Zverev said of Rublev. “It’s going to be of course a tough one, but also a fun one. I have known Andrey since we were 11 years old.
“We have been pretty much best friends for a long period of time. It’s great to see how long of a way we came and that we are kind of playing the biggest matches and competing for the biggest titles together.”
Medvedev was attempting to accomplish the rare Canada/Cincinnati double and playing his 13th match in less than one month. He reached the quarter-finals at the Tokyo Olympics, losing to Pablo Carreno Busta, and then won the title in Toronto.
In the third game of the second set, however, Medvedev ran into a television camera while chasing a sharply angled ball from Rublev. It was a violent crash; the heavy camera actually came off its mooring. Medvedev required a medical timeout and never recaptured the momentum of the first set.
“I think it’s, how you say, tough situation,” Rublev said. “When you run far away, you can hit some, or referee sometimes or chair that stay next to you. Here happens that Daniil, he hit camera. Of course in these moments it’s really dangerous because something can happen.”
Against Zverev, Rublev will have to channel the poise and precision he showed in the eighth game of the second set. With Medvedev serving at 3-4, Rublev prevailed in a 22-point game that required 15 minutes. It was the kind of game the patient, counter-punching Medvedev usually won in their previous encounters.
“In that moment, I feel that was like the turning point for both of us, because was so humid and so hot,” Rublev said. “That game we play so many great rallies, long rallies. I could feel that Daniil was a bit already tired, because sometimes he was doing mistakes that normally he was not doing.”
Zverev, who defeated Novak Djokovic in the Olympic semi-finals and Karen Khachanov in final, lost to Tsitsipas in the semi-finals at Roland Garros. He came back from that 1-4 deficit in the third set with some superb serving. There were three aces and four unreturnable offerings at 5-all and in the tie-break Zverev unleashed back-to-back serves at 131 and 133 miles per hour to position himself for the victory.
The four young Cincinnati semi-finalists seem to be in the best position to challenge No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s bid to score a Grand Slam and break the three-way tie with Federer and Nadal for most major titles.
Medvedev, at 25, is the oldest of the group, followed by Zverev (24), Rublev and Tsitsipas, who are both 23. This was the first time in nine years the top four seeds all reached the final four of a Masters 1000. That happened in Shanghai, China and, for the record, those players were Roger Federer, Djokovic, Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych.
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With Federer, Djokovic and Nadal all missing in action Saturday – the 40-year-old Federer and Nadal (35) say they are done for the year – this is, going forward, what elite men’s tennis might look like.
“It was a very dramatic match against one of the best players in the world this year,” Zverev said. “I think Stef has been playing incredible tennis and is on an incredible level. I think it was very entertaining for all the people, but it was also entertaining to play it itself, because I went through a lot of emotions.
“I mean, first, I was winning, I was playing incredible tennis. Then I had some physical issues. Then I had to come back. I had to dig deep. To come back, to win that match, is a great feeling.”