Autumn anguish: Karen Khachanov unable to rekindle Paris Masters magic

Autumn anguish: Karen Khachanov unable to rekindle Paris Masters magic

Seeded No. 11, the 2018 Paris-Bercy champion was sent packing in the first round on Monday by qualifier Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2.

Karen Khachanov intrigues. Two years ago, at the Rolex Paris Masters, he made a spectacular run to the title. Ranked just inside the Top 20 that week, Khachanov’s victims in Paris included four top tenners—John Isner, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem and, in the final, Novak Djokovic.

“He can really hurt you,” said Djokovic following that 7-5, 6-4 defeat. “That's a big weapon. And serve. I mean, serve is really, really strong and precise. So his overall game was really, really great all week.”

Also fueled by an imaginative sense of the court and a vivid passion for competition, the 6’ 6” Khachanov soon made his way into the Top 10 and in July 2019, reached a career-high ranking of No. 8. He appeared to have the goods to go higher.

Since then, though, Khachanov has stumbled. Defending his title in Paris in 2019, Khachanov lost in the second round to 36th-ranked Jan-Lennard Struff. This year, the 24-year-old Russian has often come up short in matches you’d think a sustainable top tenner would win. At the Australian Open, Khachanov lost in a fifth-set tiebreaker to Nick Kyrgios in the third round. In New York, another Aussie, Alex de Minaur, eliminated him at the same stage.  

More recently, in his last three tournaments leading up to Paris, Khachanov has been beaten by Grigor Dimitrov, Daniel Evans, and Milos Raonic—all certainly good players, but based on his late ’18 and early ‘19 rise up the ranks, rivals Khachanov might have been expected to conclusively surpass. Indeed, the contemporary ATP Top 40 is quite competitive.

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Currently ranked No. 19 and seeded 11th in Paris, Khachanov commenced his Paris Masters campaign on Monday versus a 21-year-old qualifier, 63rd-ranked Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. The Russian’s autumn anguish continued. After losing the first set, 6-3, Khachanov took command of the second, 6-2, and appeared ready to boldly start the third. It didn’t go that way, with Davidovich Fokina cashing in two of two break point opportunities to race through the decider, 6-2.

The A-grade Khachanov is a roaring jet in fast motion, able to blister the ball and smother his opponents. But if all engines aren’t clicking, he becomes far less convincing. Khachanov’s US Open revealed much. In the first round, he labored hard to overcome another ascending talent, Jannik Sinner, by the topsy-turvy score of, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 6-2, 6-0, 7-6 (4). The loss to De Minaur was another rollercoaster, Khachanov overtaken by the tenacious Aussie, 6-4, 0-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1. Though he subsequently reached the round of 16 at Roland Garros for the fourth straight year, Khachanov was handily beaten by Djokovic, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Parenthood has also factored into Khachanov’s journey. On September 14, 2019, his wife Veronika gave birth to a boy, David. Asked at Roland Garros this year what it means to be a father, Khachanov said, “it's one of the best moments for sure in life for every person to have a kid in your hands. During those difficult times, like in terms of pandemic, I think for whole world, as well as tennis players being away from the tour, I think that was a really good time to spend together with my family, with my son, to see him growing up.

“I'm kind of thankful for that opportunity to have together, to see him growing up. Sooner or later hopefully they can travel with me, he can watch me play. That's a happy moment, of course.”

Khachanov is scheduled to play next week in Sofia, Bulgaria. Between becoming a father and grappling with the pandemic, his last two years have been quite challenging. As this year nears its end and a complicated buildup for 2021 gets underway, it will be fascinating to see how his journey continues.