Khachanov’s sturdy game is a welcome addition to ATP's top tier

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WATCH—Karen Khachanov shocks Novak Djokovic in Paris final:

 

Karen Khachanov had come a long way over the course of a week in Paris.

In the fourth round, he had survived a three-tiebreaker shootout against John Isner, closing it with the shot of his life, a laser backhand-pass winner on his fifth match point. In the quarterfinals and semifinals, the 22-year-old Russian had dispatched the two most accomplished players of his up-and-coming generation, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, in straight-set runaways. Now, in his first Masters 1000 final, against Novak Djokovic, Khachanov had bounced back from an early 1-3 deficit to level the first set at 5-5. For 10 games, he had gone toe-to-toe and backhand-to-backhand with the world No. 1 and had held his own.

To actually take a set from Djokovic, though, Khachanov would have to do more. He had earned a break point for 6-5, but, right on cue, Djokovic had immediately taken control of the next rally with his best crosscourt backhand and down-the-line forehand of the match. He was upping his game and challenging Khachanov to respond. Challenge met: Just when Djokovic looked to have the point won with a crosscourt approach shot, Khachanov lunged to his left, took a backhand at his shoe-tops, and reflexed a low-lining passing shot that Djokovic couldn’t handle. As he swung his racquet, Khachanov also let out an extended grunt, the kind of sound that Djokovic and others traditionally make when they know they’ve hit a match-changing winner.

Khachanov had taken Djokovic’s best shot, and responded in exactly the way Djokovic would have responded, by ranging behind the baseline and turning the tables with a one sharp, compact swing of his racquet. With that unexpected knockdown counter-punch, the Russian had put Djokovic on the ropes, and he never trailed again. After 97 minutes, Khachanov had his first win over a member of the Big 3 in eight tries, and his first Masters 1000 title, 7-5, 6-4. He had been good enough to create his chance in the first set, and calm enough to make the most of it in the second.

“It means the world to me,” said Khachanov, who closes the year at a career-high No. 11. “I couldn’t be happier to finish the season like this.”

While Djokovic had to be feeling the effects of a hard-earned three-set win over Roger Federer the previous day, he was also on a roll—he had won his last 22 matches—and he had a major edge in experience. Coming in, Djokovic was 4-0 in finals at Bercy, and 72-31 in finals for his career.

“I want to talk about how well he played all week,” Djokovic said. “So all the credit to him. He deserves it. He’s a young player up and coming...He showed great quality today and he showed why we’re going to see a lot of him in the future.”

WATCH—Tennis Channel Live reacts to Khachanov's stunning win over Djokovic:

 

It was Khachanov, rather than Djokovic, who repeatedly got in the first blow in a rally, with his lethally reliable serve-forehand combination. It was Khachanov who closed more assuredly and effectively at the net. It was Khachanov who held his nerve with a lead in the second set, and who didn’t let Djokovic ripcord his way back into the match, the way he has on so many occasions when faced with defeat. It was Khachanov who, judging by his words afterward, didn’t just come in hoping to belt his way to a one-off victory. He had a well-thought-out game plan, and he never seemed to be playing beyond his limits or at a level that he won’t be able to reach in the future.

“One thing with Novak, you can’t just go to the net, because he has unbelievable passing shots,” Khachanov said. “You have to really prepare your coming through. You have to really sort out the right shots when you can go to the net.”

Did we just see a career-changing week in Khachanov’s life? Does the sport have a new major-title contender for 2019? Most signs point to yes, at least on the first count.

It’s true that Jack Sock won here last year, and he obviously didn’t go onto greater things this season. And it’s true that Khachanov was one point from elimination against Isner in the quarterfinals. But Khachanov has been building up to this performance. He won two other tournaments in 2018, and his four-set loss to Rafael Nadal at the US Open was one of the best matches of those two weeks. Along with Stefanos Tsitsipas, who reached a Masters 1000 final in Toronto, and Borna Coric, who reached one in Shanghai, Khachanov’s victory at Bercy makes the ATP’s Next Gen pool a little deeper going forward.

As a player, Khachanov is prototypical of the moment: He’s a rangy and athletic 6’6”, and he plays a straightforward power-baseline game, without much in the way of bells or whistles or variations. The only visible aberration in his game is the way he holds racquet face down on his forehand side when he takes it back. In the past, that windup has made the shot erratic, especially on low balls, but he was consistent with his forehand this week. The take-back also helped him pull off his most spectacular shot against Djokovic, a bolo-punch crosscourt forehand pass hit on the full run.

Just as welcome as Khachanov’s game is the personality he brings to the court. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much. Like his style of play, Khachanov appears to be a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. He lumbers a little between points, wears his hat backwards, and doesn’t show a lot of emotion. He doesn’t have the leaping flash of Denis Shapovalov, the heir-apparent presumption of Zverev, the edgy unpredictability of Nick Kyrgios, or the deep-thoughts soulfulness of Tsitsipas. All of which makes Khachanov, in many ways, a relief to watch: Rather than adding his own personal drama to a match, he just gets on with it. He doesn’t throw tantrums, and from what I’ve seen, when he loses, he accepts it and moves on. In general, he doesn’t act as if he’s the next great champion in waiting.

“I have the same goals I had last year,” Khachanov said of what he hopes to do in 2019. “Finish as high as I can, and work with my team to try to keep getting better.”

Khachanov came a long way this week, and, with a sturdy game and a level head, he looks destined to go a lot farther.

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