Millman Upset Of Karatsev Means No Russian Title Sweep

John Millman (photo: St. Petersburg Open)

ST. PETERSBURG/WASHINGTON, October 28, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

After winning his second career title Sunday at the VTB Kremlin Cup in Moscow, Russia’s Aslan Karatsev played his first match in the St. Petersburg Open on Thursday afternoon with an eye toward trying to win back-to-back titles in his home country.

However, as Karatsev showed from his paltry 6-3, 6-2 loss to No. 57 John Millman of Australia, it’s difficult to carry over championship-level momentum from one tournament to the next.

The 32-year-old Millman from Brisbane displayed a quiet demeanor and efficiently won points on both his serve and return against the tired-looking Karatsev. It all added up for him in a nice upset victory over the the World No. 19 Karatsev, who was seeded fourth in St. Petersburg. It was Millman’s second Top 20 win of the season and advanced him to his second straight quarterfinal in Russia after reaching the last eight in Moscow last week.

Millman gained the first advantage in the match when he broke Karatsev on his fourth break-point opportunity to wrap up a 14-point game for a 3-1 lead. He consolidated the break by saving four break points and went on to win the 42-minute set 6-3.

Next, Millman surged ahead in the second set when he broke the Russian No. 3 in the fifth game for a 3-2 advantage. Karatsev showed his frustration by smashing his racquet, which earned him a point penalty. Then, he buried his head in his towel during the fifth-game changeover. Once again, Millman consolidated the break – this time serving a love game – for a 4-2 lead.

Soon, Millman broke Karatsev for the third time to take a commanding double-break lead at 5-2. He needed only to hold serve once more and the upset win would be his, plus he would earn a berth in Friday’s quarterfinal round against one of two Americans, No. 5 seed Taylor Fritz or No. 54 Tommy Paul. Millman did just that, with his third and final love hold. He closed out match point after an hour and 18 minutes with a cross-court forehand winner that his opponent didn’t get a racquet on.

“Congratulations to Aslan for an incredible year and last week lifting a title in his home city. I think that’s pretty special,” Millman said during an on-court TV interview after his second-round victory, which improved his season win-loss record to 23-24.

“I’ve enjoyed my time in Russia, I feel like I’m playing really good tennis. It’s nice at the end of the year to be playing at a high level.”

Asked whom he would rather face in the quarterfinals, Fritz or Paul, Millman maintained a diplomatic tone in answering the question, saying: “They’re both very dangerous, they’re actually very good friends. It’s going to be an interesting match. They’re both very challenging. … Whichever one I play will be a tough match. I just want to rest up and get some good food in me.”

Fritz beats Paul in a battle of American best friends

As it happened, Fritz beat Paul in the all-American battle among best friends, 7-6 (3), 6-4, that lasted an hour and 33 minutes. Fritz hit six aces and converted both of his break-point opportunities against Paul – one in each set – to win his 28th match of the season. The victory advanced Fritz, who is yet to drop a set this week and has won six of his last seven matches, to his sixth quarterfinal of the season.

“It makes it even tougher,” Fritz said during his on-court TV interview in describing what it’s like to play against Paul. Surprisingly, despite knowing each other since childhood, this was their first ATP Tour meeting. “Not just another American, he’s one of my closest friends. It’s never easy playing against a really close friend. The match in general was high level.”

Then, much to his surprise, Fritz was feted with an on-court celebration in honor of his 24th birthday. It came complete with a thoughtful gift of a bottle of Champagne and a pair of goblets.

Later, Fritz and Paul were back out on court, this time as doubles partners, to face Marcelo Demoliner of Brazil and Marcus Daniell of New Zealand. Fritz and Paul lost to the Brazilian/Kiwi pair, 6-0, 3-6, 10-7.

Around the St. Petersburg Open

• Unseeded Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands upset No. 8 seed Sebastian Korda, 6-2, 7-5, in their first meeting to reach the quarterfinal round. The No. 69 van de Zandschulp broke the 38th-ranked Korda three times during their one-hour and 28-minute match and outpointed the American 70-53. Next, van de Zandschulp will face top seed Andrey Rublev of Russia on Friday evening.

• No. 6 seed Karen Khachanov of Russia and 2011 champion Marin Cilic of Croatia battled past the two-hour mark during their second-round match inside Sibur Arena, won by the 35th-ranked Cilic 6-4, 6-7 (1), 6-4. The Croatian won the last five games of the two-hour and 29-minute match.

In a contest which featured such slim margins for error, at a set apiece, the No. 30 Khachanov broke on his third opportunity in the fourth game of the third set for a 3-1 advantage and consolidated it for a 4-1 lead. However, Cilic got the break back in the seventh game when the Russian sailed a forehand long – the third time he had broken Khachanov in the second-round match. He held serve for 4-all, then broke Khachanov, again, to win his fourth consecutive game. Suddenly, the match was on Cilic’s racquet and he didn’t throw away his shot. Cilic stepped up and won on his first match-point opportunity to move into the quarterfinals at St. Petersburg for the first time since he won the title 10 years ago.

During his on-court TV interview that followed, Cilic was asked if he could pinpoint why he won. “Well, I won five games in a row, but I have to say it was an amazing match,” he said. “Great level from both sides.”

• No. 3 seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain was the last of the 28 players in the main draw to see his first action on Thursday. The World No. 20 took on No. 56 Mackenzie McDonald of the United States for the second time after meeting in the second round at Shanghai in 2018, won in three sets by Bautista Agut. Like three years ago, Bautista Agut came out ahead in St. Petersburg. He won 6-3, 6-2 to advance against Cilic.

Bautista Agut gained the first break of the match to go ahead 4-2, consolidated it and went on to put away the 39-minute opening set 6-3 with a nice backhand volley winner coming into the net. Then, he broke McDonald in the fifth and seventh games and relied upon his mental strength to get across the finish line. Bautista Agut closed out the win at love with his second ace in his final service game. He saved the only break point he faced and outpointed McDonald 61-40.

“I love playing in St. Petersburg. I like this court, I like the conditions,” Bautista Agut said after his 29th win of the season, during an on-court TV interview. “I like the city, also. I’m happy I won my first match in two sets. … I was ready to play a good match today.”

• No. 1 doubles seeds Jamie Murray of Great Britain and Bruno Soares of Brazil defeated Australian pair Luke Saville and John-Patrick Smith, 7-6 (0), 3-6, 10-6, to advance to the semifinal round.

Also, Rohan Bopanna of India and Denis Shapovalov of Canada, who earlier in the week took out No. 2 seeds Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Ben McLachlan of Japan, held off the Russian super team of Khachanov and Rublev, 6-4, 5-7, 10-7, despite being outpointed 70-67. They will play the winner of Friday’s quarterfinal between No. 4 seeds Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan and Hugo Nys of Monaco against Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico and Andres Molteni of Argentina.

Thursday’s St. Petersburg Open results

Friday’s St. Petersburg Open order of play

By the numbers

When Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff faces No. 2 seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada in Friday’s quarterfinal round, the big-hitting German, who took out No. 7 seed Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan, 6-4, 6-3 on Wednesday, will be trying to reach his first ATP Tour semifinal since he made the Munich final in May.

“Quotable …”

“I have to say the city has a ‘wow’ factor. The architecture is amazing! My wife’s sister is an architect and as were on a video-call together, I said to them that they have to come and see it. The whole city looks like a museum – it is incredible. One of my big wishes is to come here in the summer and experience the city in summertime.”

Marin Cilic of Croatia, on how St. Petersburg has changed over the 10 years he’s been coming to compete in the St. Petersburg Open.