Jan-Lennard Struff became the first lucky loser to reach an ATP Masters 1000 final on Friday when he moved past qualifier Aslan Karatsev 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 at the Mutua Madrid Open.
Last week, Karatsev defeated Struff in the final round of qualifying to advance to the main draw. Ten days on and the players were competing in their first ATP Masters 1000 semi-final after earning a series of stunning wins in the Spanish capital.
In front of a packed Manolo Santana Stadium, Struff gained revenge to reach his first ATP Masters 1000 final and move to within one win of his first title. After struggling to deal with Karatsev’s pace in the first set, the German readjusted and produced a clean-hitting and aggressive display in the second and third sets to blast a tiring Karatsev off court. The 33-year-old struck 37 winners and broke the qualifier’s serve three times to advance to his second tour-level championship match.
“It is amazing,” Struff said. “I didn’t think about this. I played one final before in Munich  but there was no crowd because of Covid. Now I am here and [there is] an amazing crowd. I think on Sunday it will also be a very good crowd. I am very happy to reach a final and very happy with the win.”
With his two-hour, 18-minute victory, Struff has climbed to No. 28 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings. The German, who reached a previous career-high No. 29 in August 2020, will play for his first tour-level title when he faces defending champion Carlos Alcaraz on Sunday.
“We played an amazing match at Wimbledon last year and I was very close to beating him but he pulled off unbelievable shots in the tie-break,” Struff said when looking ahead to the final against Alcaraz. “This is going to be different. This is in Spain, in Madrid. I think he is 20-0 on Spanish clay courts, so it is going to be very tough. I have to go for it otherwise I will have no chance. I will try my best to beat him and win my first title.”
Struff is aiming to become the second lucky loser to win an ATP Tour title this season after Soonwoo Kwon triumphed in Adelaide in January. The German, who upset Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals, was the third lucky loser to reach the semi-finals at an ATP Masters 1000 event, joining Thomas Johansson in Toronto in 2004 and Lucas Pouille in Rome in 2016.
Karatsev, who reached the semi-finals as a qualifier at the Australian Open in 2021, was chasing his fourth tour-level trophy this weekend. Having dropped as low as No. 129 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings on 17 April, he refound his best form in Madrid, defeating seeded players Botic van de Zandschulp, Alex de Minaur and Daniil Medvedev to become the second qualifier to reach the semi-finals in tournament history. He leaves the clay-court event at No. 51 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings.
After Struff raced into a 3-1 lead in the first set, he struggled to control his groundstrokes from the baseline in the fast conditions. Karatsev took the ball early on return to rush the big-serving German, ruthlessly moving forward to dispatch winners and move ahead.
Struff refused to go away at the start of the second set, though, and earned an early break. The German upped his intensity and his brand of ‘big-man tennis’ started to cause problems for Karatsev, with Struff winning 94 per cent (15/16) of his first-serve points to force a decider.
The 33-year-old, who advanced to the quarter-finals on clay in Monte-Carlo last month, continued to go after the ball in the third set. He looked the fresher of the two, grinding Karatsev down with his precise hitting to seal his 11th win of the season on his fifth match point.
“I feel Aslan had some issues at the end. Was struggling with his leg, which is very unfortunate so I wish him all the best,” Struff said. “For me it wasn’t that easy because I knew I had to put the ball in and be aggressive. I tried to get it done at 5/3. I managed to stay calm, served well and went for my shots.”
The German is up 18 spots to 13th in the Pepperstone ATP Live Race To Turin and will rise to 10th if he wins the title.
Did You Know?
This was the first time a qualifier and lucky loser were meeting in an ATP Tour semi-final since Rio de Janeiro in 2020, when qualifier Gianluca Mager beat lucky loser Attila Balazs 7-6(4) 4-6 7-6(2).