At the beginning of January, Andrey Rublev was still a virtual stranger beyond the borders of the microcosm of tennis, despite his 5th place in the world. Just his name resonated with art lovers familiar with his 15th-century namesake, Andrei Rublev, Russia’s most famous icon painter. With his flamboyant mop of hair and his decrepit face despite his 24 years, the player – who enters the running on Tuesday May 24 at Roland-Garros against the South Korean Soon-woo Kwon (71st in the world) – seems rather out of a Rembrandt painting.

In a few weeks, thanks to disastrous events that came to shake the world order, his personality captured the light of the media. In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Rublev was the first of his compatriots on the circuit to publicly oppose it, scribbling “No war please” on camera after qualifying for the final of the Dubai tournament, the February 25.

At the Masters 1000 in Indian Wells (California), a few weeks later, he clarified his thoughts: “What is happening is terrible, I feel really bad for everyone. This is why sport must be an example. We must be united and stay out of politics to set an example at least in the sports sphere. »

Outbreak at the start of a pandemic

So far, the right-hander has been progressing in the shadow of his compatriot and friend Daniil Medvedev, who ascended the world throne at the end of February, descending a step a month later after his early elimination in Indian Wells. Rublev slipped out of the top 20 just as an as-yet-unknown infectious agent was about to bring the planet to a halt. During a dotted 2020 season, he was one of those who knew how to maneuver best: five titles and an express escalation to 5th place in the world. The Russian could even have grabbed another rank or two without the ranking freeze decided at the start of the pandemic.

He appears this week at Roland-Garros as seeded No. 7, after a start to the season where he was also talked about thanks to his results on the court: victories in Dubai, Marseille and Belgrade at the end of April, causing the world number one, Novak Djokovic, to bend at home in the final.

As often in the success stories of Russian players, the family circle gravitates in the middle. In the case of Rublev, it is his mother. Tennis teacher, Marina Marenko had as a student Anna Kournikova, shooting star of the late 1990s who will leave the circuit without the slightest title to her credit. Little Andrey regularly skipped classes to take refuge at the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow. His father, Andrey senior, is a former amateur boxer who represented the Soviet Union.

Just like Medvedev, a year his senior, Rublev landed on the French Riviera at 14. A simple stopover in his case, he then chose to head for Barcelona, ​​in a private academy. The list of their deviations is as long as the course of the Volga. “When we were younger, we were two crazy people on the court. We were destroying rackets, we were complaining nonstop, ”recalled the youngest before facing him at the US Open in 2020. The teenager dragged this bad reputation in the locker room for a long time. “I’m surprised how rude he is for a 17-year-old player, he doesn’t show much respect,” Spaniard Fernando Verdasco said in 2015. The same year, Argentinian Olivo Renzo published a letter on social networks in which he accused Rublev of having intimidated him during a match.

“A stressed pit bull” in the field

He has since matured. His energy-hungry tennis, on the other hand, is more difficult to channel. Despite a twig physique (1.88 m for 75 kg), Rublev swings missiles in forehand like Juan Martin del Potro, with this detail that the Argentinian displayed 20 kg more on the scale. “On the court, he looks crazy, he’s a stressed pit bull, but outside, he’s very funny”, summed up his coach Fernando Vicente at L’Equipe in June 2021.

Andrey Rublev’s greatest quality? Can beat anyone. His biggest flaw? To be able to lose against anyone. He still happens too often to get lost mentally and to dry up when it comes to finding a plan B, a fortiori in Grand Slam, where he has never exceeded the quarters. A shame for this chess player. “I play chess like I play tennis. I try to take a queen, or forehand, then dictate. I’m preparing to attack, “he said in March 2021 in an interview with the ATP website, the body that governs the men’s circuit.

In the spring of 2021, the Russian offered his first Masters 1000 final in Monte-Carlo, where he lost to another starving young wolf, the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas – who did it again on the Rock this year. Despite the defeat, he made an impression by bringing down King Nadal in one of his strongholds (11 wins) in the quarter-finals.

As a kid, the winner of Roland-Garros juniors had such a passion for the Spaniard that he wanted to do everything like him: play with the same racquet, wear his tank top-pantacourt-bandana panoply… “He also hoped to have the same left arm muscular than him,” his mother had kindly teased at L’Equipe in 2017. Since then, he has forged his own style. On and off the court.