Say this for Karen Khachanov: he didn’t make his fans sweat it out. Needing to win the Paris Masters just to have a shot at qualifying for the ATP Finals, the defending champion—No. 8 in the rankings but No. 16 in the Race for London—bowed out in his opening match to Jan-Lennard Struff, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-5.
Considering Khachanov’s entry into the doubles event, alongside compatriot Andrey Rublev, it’s doubtful that the 23-year-old believed he had a serious chance at season-ending championship contention. If nothing else, Khachanov can now focus entirely on doubles, perhaps ending the 2018 and 2019 seasons with titles.
Khachanov’s loss to Struff, ranked No. 36 and who regularly punches above his weight, is a fitting end to a largely disappointing season. In defeating Novak Djokovic at last year’s Paris Masters final, Khachanov proved that his hard-hitting, line-drive game could undo even the game’s greatest baseliners. He also owns a massive serve, and appears uncowed when facing elite competition.
“From the first time I saw [Khachanov], he’s been my No. 1 guy,” Tennis Channel’s Mark Knowles told me last year. “He’s like a Marat Safin 2.0—but with a strong mental game. He’s a huge player, yet he can move so well. He just needs to close points out at the net more.”
But while Khachanov made one deep run at the majors in 2019—a quarterfinal at Roland Garros—and reached three semis this season, it’s shocking that he failed to reach a final. He came close: earlier this month, in the Beijing semifinals, Khachanov lost to Dominic Thiem, 7-5 in the third. At Indian Wells, the Rusisan lost a two-tiebreak tightrope walk to Rafael Nadal in the final four. And in Montreal, after a straight-sets dismissal of Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals, Khachanov fell in straights to Daniil Medvedev.
Those three conquerors are all within a tier that, for the moment, is too lofty for Khachanov to occupy. They’ll each finish this season in the Top 5, while Khachanov should settle around No. 16.
Khachanov’s fans surely have Top 5 aspirations in mind, and the player has plenty of time to make it happen—along with positioning himself in the semifinal and final rounds of Slams. But we may all want to tap the brakes, and wait for another small but significant step before the giant leap many believe Khachanov is capable of taking.