Facing the prospect of failing to defend his title at the Kremlin Cup this week, Karen Khachanov battled back from the brink of defeat in the second round against the veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber, fending off five match points to live to play another day.
Where other players might be ready to ease into the 2019 offseason, the Russian is in full-on fight mode: After Moscow this week and next week’s scheduled event, he’ll be back in Paris as he attempts to repeat as champion at the final Masters tournament of the decade.
A longshot to make the field at the ATP Finals in London, Khachanov, nevertheless, still has much to play for with more than a 1,000 ranking points on the line. After a year of inconsistent results, though, is he up for the challenge?
Seeded second in his home city of Moscow this week, Khachanov was threatened on multiple occasions late in the match against Kohlschreiber before clinching victory on his first match point when the German double-faulted. Next up for the world No. 8 is Andreas Seppi, a player with some similarities to his previous opponent: one who’s been on the tour for more than a decade, can sense some vulnerabilities in a younger player that’s had some struggles and know how to take advantage of the situation to pull off an upset.
It’s one of the year’s surprises that Khachanov would find himself at this point. Before his compatriot Daniil Medvedev took leaps and bounds up the rankings, it was expected that he would have been the one challenging for major titles in 2019, given how he finished up his campaign last year.
After winning his second title of 2018 in Moscow, where he defeated Medvedev and Adrian Mannarino in his last two matches, Khachanov moved on to Vienna, Austria, where he fell in the second round. Unseeded at the Paris Masters, Khachanov would go on to surprise the field by capturing the most prestigious title of his young career. He defeated four Top 10 players in a row, as he fought off match points against John Isner in the third round, then posted straight-set wins against Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem and finally world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the championship bout.
This year, though, has been a notoriously difficult one: Despite reaching his current career-high No. 8 in the standings, he only advanced to two quarterfinals in the first half of 2019, in Indian Wells and at the French Open. It wasn’t until August that he reached a semifinal, at the Canada Masters, where Medvedev stopped his run.
Khachanov fell in the first round of the US Open, then in his opener at his next tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia. The “Asian Swing” of the ATP calendar got off to a promising start as he made it to the semifinals of the China Open in Beijing, but he lost early in Shanghai to Fabio Fognini, whom he had just beaten the week prior.
Now, he’s in the midst of the most pressure-packed three-week stretch of his career, starting at the Kremlin Cup. Recent results show that repeating at the tournament is a doable task: Marin Cilic accomplished the feat in 2014 and 2015, and two of Khachanov’s countrymen—Nikolay Davydenko and Hall of Famer Yevgeny Kafelnikov—have pulled it off in the 2000s.
Defending Paris, though, might prove to be more difficult. In the history of the tournament, only one player has done it before: Djokovic, who won from 2013 to 2015, but was denied a fourth victory last year by Khachanov.
But first is Moscow. Surviving his opening match might be the key to spurring on another stellar fall run by the 23-year-old.