After Madrid Open win, has Andrey Rublev found the right balance?

Andrey Rublev battled back from illness as well as the fallout from disqualification in Dubai to win the Madrid Open. Julian Finney/Getty Images

Andrey Rublev fell onto his back, legs outstretched with his hands covering his face. Red clay covered his shirt and his legs as he stood up seconds later. He let out a deep exhale.

He had arrived in Madrid without a match win in 49 days -- a near-eternity during the spring tennis season -- and was leaving as an unexpected champion.

Despite a debilitating (presumed) virus that plagued him throughout, everything clicked for Rublev in Spain. He rattled off win after win, including over Carlos Alcaraz in the quarterfinals, and defeated Felix Auger-Aliassime in Sunday's final. It was his second Masters 1000-level title and 16th title on the ATP Tour.

After he stood up and hugged Auger-Aliassime at the net, Rublev went to the camera to write on the lens -- a custom at the event for match winners -- and paused for a moment before writing with a red marker: "Samadhi now I'm free."

The message was perhaps as unexpected as the title itself, and fans on social media were baffled by it. Samadhi, a state of meditative consciousness and concentration found in Buddhism and Hinduism, is not a concept the often-fiery Rublev is known for on the court, nor was the principle on display when he was disqualified from a match in Dubai in March for yelling at a line judge.

But something changed for the 26-year-old Russian. After months of trying to balance the emotion needed on court to perform his best with the need to remain calm and composed, he found a way to quiet the self-doubt and simply play.

"I was able to not think at all [the] last couple of days, and I was able to stay focused only on tennis without thinking anything," he said on Sunday. "So I let myself [be] completely free."

The losses were only part of the story coming into Madrid.

The disqualification in Dubai derailed a season that had started with promise. Then ranked No. 5 in the world, Rublev opened 2024 with a title in Hong Kong and reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open.

In Dubai, after going down 6-5 in the final set during his semifinal match against Alexander Bublik, Rublev was upset that Bublik's baseline shot had not been called out. In the heat of the moment, Rublev shook his hands and yelled in the face of a line judge. He was accused of verbal abuse and using a Russian obscenity -- something he denied -- and defaulted from the match despite pleas from both Rublev and Bublik to continue.

Originally stripped of his ranking points and prize money at the event, Rublev appealed the ruling and was ultimately successful. He was fined $36,400 for unsportsmanlike conduct but the ATP ruled that the "customary penalties associated with a default ... would be disproportionate in this case." Rublev and others around tennis, including Daria Kasatkina, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, Andy Roddick and Brad Gilbert, called for the need for video review at tournaments as a result of what happened.

But his behavior and immediate reaction were widely condemned, and the video of the incident went viral. Rublev later apologized on social media for his outburst, promising he would "learn from this and [would] try to be a better player and better person."

Days later, and halfway across the world, Rublev won his next match against Andy Murray at Indian Wells. He had no idea then that it would be the last match he would win until Madrid. He lost to Jiri Lehecka in straight sets in the Round of 32 and then had nearly two weeks before his opening round match in Miami. The time off allowed for introspection, and when he sat down with ESPN at Hard Rock Stadium in March, he was quick -- 68 seconds into the interview to be exact -- to bring up the inner turmoil he was facing on court.

"I'm an emotional person, I'm very emotional," Rublev said. "I need energetic emotions to play tennis and that's why for me it's tough to find this balance because there are moments [where] I let emotions start to destroy me, and it's not helping me at all. Or opposite. When I control them, I'm too much without emotions and it's destroying me also a lot because then I'm too flat."

Rublev has been working with a psychologist since 2022. But when asked if he had yet achieved that balance, he didn't hesitate in his response.

"For the moment, I still don't know how to find this consistently," he said.

But that didn't stop him from trying. And he was trying everything he could think of.

Rublev began crafting a daily schedule based almost entirely on conserving his energy levels, ensuring he used his time efficiently while on site at a tournament. On that particular day -- two days before his opening-round match in Miami -- Rublev was practicing on court, working with his physio, spending time in the gym, doing two media interviews and eating lunch, all with minimal time in between. As soon as he was done with everything, he would go straight back to his hotel.

Dozens of fans surrounded his practice session and he made time to take pictures and sign autographs afterwards. But he later said that while he appreciated them, the interactions drained him.

"It's the easiest way to show how grateful I am for the fans that have come," he said. "I want them to have good memories ... But of course, it's not easy, you feel the [depletion of] energy and feel more tired."

Rublev's agent Galo Blanco, a former player who has known Rublev since he was a teenager, said the search for balance has been at least a two-year quest for Rublev, but it became even more of a focus after Dubai.

"He's a player who gives everything, always," Blanco told ESPN ahead of Rublev's semifinal match in Madrid. "He plays with a lot of passion and energy and yeah, after what happened in Dubai, he wanted to control even more his emotions. But it's tough ... I mean it's a long process. He wants to be a better player and a better person. That's his main goal always."

Off the court, Rublev is soft-spoken and, according to those who know him best, committed to using his platform for good. In February 2022, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Rublev was one of the first Russian players to publicly speak up when he wrote "No war, please" on a camera lens after winning a match. He has since voiced his desire for peace on a number of other occasions.

He's been friends with Daniil Medvedev since childhood and -- much to the delight of tennis fans -- was named the godfather to Medvedev's young daughter.

"We're really close," Medvedev said in September, before the two played against one another at the US Open. "I mean, we share a lot of interests. It's great to have someone like this on tour because sometimes it isn't easy. You travel, travel, travel. To have a friend like this is great."

Earlier this year, Rublev launched a foundation to help kids around the world struggling with critical illnesses and medical challenges. While some athletes and celebrities have deeply personal connections to their charitable causes, Rublev started his in many ways because he knew how lucky he was to not be able to relate.

"I never [experienced] it, no friends did or anyone I knew," he said. "But when I started to see the world as a junior [player], I got to see how people live and [it] made me want to focus on what's important to me. I feel that there are not many good people in the world and the kids ... they're completely pure and genuine. I think it's important to try to keep this pureness as long as possible because in the end the kids are our next generation and they will be better than us."

To launch the foundation, Rublev used some of the proceeds from Rublo, his apparel line, which he launched and has exclusively worn on the court after his deal with Nike expired at the end of 2022. His first collection called "Play for the kids" raised more than $150,000 to kickstart the efforts.

Blanco said this side of Rublev, the one that wants to help kids and make the world a better place, is who he really is at his core.

"I know sometimes his behavior on court is not the right one, but that's why he's also working so hard to show everybody," Blanco said. "The real Andrey is the one that is behind the foundation, the one that when he goes out off the court never leaves anybody without a signature or without a picture. He is the kind Andrey. When he presses the start button and he gets on the court, it can be different, but we need to find the balance."

In Madrid, Rublev said he felt so ill that he had been unable to sleep or swallow food for several days leading into the final and almost withdrew. He also said he needed an anesthetic in his foot to treat inflammation and severe swelling. But thanks to the help of doctors and painkillers, he continued to play and fight through. (On Sunday, he revealed he would be going to the hospital Monday for a full evaluation and for any necessary treatment.) That same determination helped him rally back after dropping the first set against both Alcaraz in the quarters and Auger-Aliassime in the final.

He said that after defeating Alcaraz he "had no energy and no power to do anything else besides just to focus on the game." But it was somehow the mentality he had been looking for. On the court during the trophy ceremony, he called it "the most proud title" of his career after everything he had been through.

Presumably with a clean bill of health and with his ranking back up to No. 6, Rublev will now try to build on the success and Samadhi he found in Madrid. He will next play at the Italian Open -- another 1000-level event -- before heading to Paris for the French Open. He's a two-time quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, most recently in 2022, and has reached 10 major quarterfinals during his career, but has never been able to get further.

Will this be the turning point for Rublev? Or at least what gets him fully back on track this season? Rublev didn't want to muse much about what the victory meant, nor get too emotional about it either way.

"It's normal to have up-and-downs," Rublev said Sunday. "The season is long and we have many opportunities, so in [a] moment I will have a chance, and then as soon as I will have a chance, I will need to use it, because [that] week will change everything. In the end, it happened here. Now [it] looks like clay season [has] been so good to me, you know, even [though] the last two clay tournaments I lost [in the] first round."