INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—It's not often that a player's breakout performance ends in a loss, but that's exactly what happened when Karen Khachanov fell just short of pulling off a monumental upset over Rafael Nadal at the 2018 US Open. The two met in the third round of that tournament, with Nadal escaping in four tight sets, 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3).
While Khachanov had been playing some solid tennis before the event, it was in Flushing Meadows where fans got to see what he was really made of. At 6'6'', the 22-year-old has the size and strength to punish his opponents with his serve. That was one thing that stood out when he took it to Nadal on Arthur Ashe Stadium; the other was that he doesn't move like your typical big server. Khachanov has the ability to track down more balls than somebody his size should, and he has the type of booming forehand that can swing any point in his favor.
The match against Nadal didn't end the way he would have wanted, but it proved that he can compete with the game's elite. The newly confident Russian ran with it the rest of the season. Khachanov would win two titles after the US Open, at the Kremlin Cup and the Paris Masters—the latter capped with an authoritative win over Novak Djokovic in the final.
But after winning your first Masters 1000 title, you're no longer a surprise anymore. So when Khachanov struggled out the gates in 2019, his performances raised some eyebrows.
Khachanov lost to an out-of-form Stan Wawrinka in the first round of the season-opening Qatar Open. He then suffered a disappointing straight-set loss to Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round of the Australian Open. That was where things really started to spiral, as the Russian would lose in the opening round at his next three events—the Sofia Open, the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament and the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
"I was just a little bit sick, like some virus in February," said Khachanov. "So when I was playing indoors, that was reason I didn't go to Marseilles."
So it's a bit unfair to say the pressure of being one of the world's up-and-coming stars got to Khachanov, but his poor performances were now in the public eye. Khachanov might have been ill and he has also said he was dealing with some of the ups and downs that comes with switching to a new racquet, but the reality is that he is a big-time talent, and people are expecting him to play well on a consistent basis.
Fast forward to Indian Wells, and you'll see the Khachanov people were looking for earlier in the year. The Russian is into the quarterfinals at the top-tier hard-court event after wins over Feliciano Lopez, Andrey Rublev and John Isner. The 6-4, 7-6 (1) win over Isner came in a round-of-16 match on Wednesday, when Khachanov put forth a throwback throwdown against the huge-serving crowd favorite.
After the match Khachanov was asked if he is feeling back to his best.
"Definitely better than at the beginning," he responded. "Yeah, match by match, feeling better, of course, getting more confident."
The world No. 13 won 79 percent of his first-serve points in the match, which was important considering his first-serve percentage was only 52 percent. It helped that he was dynamite on his second serve, winning 77 percent of those points.
Khachanov also displayed the strong mentality he picked up towards the end of last year, as he saved all three of Isner's break-point chances, and converted on one of his only two—which is often all you need against a player like Isner. After the match, Khachanov let out a huge roar. It felt like a signal to the world that he is back.
"I think I played in general really solid and good in the key moments," Khachanov said afterward. "And especially with John, this is very important. I think that's why basically I won the match."
Now comes Khachanov's real opportunity to prove that his early-season woes are behind him: a rematch with Nadal.
The Indian Wells men's field has been depleted in a big way with early losses from Djokovic, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Nadal and Roger Federer are still here, but Khachanov has to feel like he is the next man up.
"What to say?"Khachanov said about Nadal. "He's one of the best tennis players, great champion. And nothing to lose, let's say. You know, I'm playing better. Feeling more confident. It will be a good challenge, good match for me. I'm really looking forward to have a good match against him."
Not only does Khachanov have a chance to right his 2019 wrongs with a win, he also has a chance to make us completely forget them. A victory over Rafa on a stage like this can flip the proverbial script. Winning the Paris Masters might seem like a major accomplishment, but that title wouldn't be in the same stratosphere as winning one in Indian Wells.
Khachanov he has too much game to keep losing early in tournaments—and too much to simply settle for coming close against top players. Nadal is as tough as it gets, considering his form so far. But Khachanov has looked quite formidable himself. It's time for him to make his next statement.