School is very much in on the ATP tour this fall.

Two weeks ago, 19-year-old Alexander Zverev of Germany won his first title in St. Petersburg. This past weekend, 20-year-old Karen Khachanov of Russia did the same in Chengdu. Suddenly, after years of wondering who the future of the men’s game was going to be, we have too many faces and names to remember.

“I can’t believe I won my first title,” a beaming Khachanov said after coming back to beat 27th-ranked Albert Ramos-Viñolas, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (3), 6-3, in the final.

It was Khachanov’s fourth win over a seed in Chengdu; he also eliminated veteran pros Joao Sousa, Feliciano Lopez and Viktor Troicki.

While Khachanov more than earned the victory, he spoke for many of us when he admitted to being surprised by it. Fans had been anticipating that Zverev and 21-year-old Nick Kyrgios would hoist their first trophies this season, and they did. By comparison, Khachanov is virtually unknown to the general tennis public. He started the week ranked 101st, has spent most of 2016 on the Challenger circuit and lost in qualifying at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. It wasn’t until the year’s fourth major, the U.S. Open, that Khachanov appeared on our TV screens, when he won a set from Kei Nishikori in their second-round match in Louis Armstrong Stadium.


So who is Khachanov, and how good could he be? He was born in Moscow, but trains in Barcelona with Milos Raonic’s former coach, the smart and serious Galo Blanco. With that background, it’s not surprising that Khachanov lists clay and slow hard courts as his favorite surfaces, and that he hits the heavy ground strokes needed for success on them.

Watching Khachanov against Nishikori, though, I thought the most telling aspect of his personal bio was the fact that, when asked to name his role models, he chose Marat Safin and Juan Martin del Potro. Both of those guys are big, both lumber around the court and both bludgeon the ball when they get to it. That’s a pretty fair description of how the 6’6” Khachanov goes about his business, too.

Here are a few notes from the highlights of the Chengdu final above.

—Right from the start, you can see he loves to hit his big slap forehand, and he especially loves to hit it down the line, inside out and inside in. In the final, he didn’t pummel it for crosscourt winners all that often; when he goes in that direction, he usually opts to hit an angled setup shot that moves his opponent wide.

—The most notable elements of Khachanov’s forehand are the open stance and the quick-whip backswing. Like Kyrgios, he doesn’t need an elaborate take-back to generate power; a wrist snap is enough.

—Khachanov’s backhand is a solid supporting shot and, when needed, a little bit more. He likes to let it fly down the line, and his Djokovichian return of serve from that side, deep and down the middle, is one of his most effective weapons.

—The serve is Khachanov’s favorite shot, and while he’s not an ace machine, it’s heavy and pressing, and he can move it around. Khachanov was never ahead on the scoreboard in the second set against Ramos-Viñolas, but his serve was there for him when he needed it. “He was serving so well and so fast,” Ramos-Viñolas said. “That’s why I didn’t return so well.”

—In the final, Khachanov didn’t always move forward when he had the advantage in a rally. In one of them, he put Ramos-Viñolas on the run with a crosscourt backhand. But rather than anticipate a short ball, he stayed at the back of the court.

—Khachanov will improve in this regard, but it does illustrate the biggest question mark about his game: Does he have the all-court speed, fluidity and defensive skills that are necessary to reach the Top 5? Khachanov is sturdy rather than lanky. We know he can hit, but can he also move?

We also know, as evidenced by this final, that Khachanov can stay in a tough match mentally. While he lost in four sets to Nishikori at the Open, Khachanov didn’t choke away his early lead; he was just too erratic over the long haul. In the Chengdu final, he stole a match that appeared to belong to his opponent by lifting his game in the second-set tiebreaker.

“In the second [set], I was thinking to win the set and keep fighting,” said Khachanov, who jumped to a career-high No. 55 with his title. “I was playing a guy ranked much higher than me, so I just have to focus on every goal and keep going. You cannot lose focus and be relaxed. I was just pushing myself to the limit...”

What is Khachanov’s limit? As with all of his fellow young guns, the fun will be in finding out.