Watch out, because Karen Khachanov is catching fire in Rotterdam. After beating Stan Wawrinka, 6-4, 7-5, in his first round, Khachanov dismantled Cameron Norrie, 6-2, 6-2, in just over an hour on Wednesday. He’ll look to defeat Stefanos Tsitsipas for the first time in Friday’s quarterfinal, and even though he is a +175 underdog, there’s a very good chance he’ll pull the upset. Here’s why.
Not all hard courts are created equal. Some are slow, some are fast, some are high-bouncing, and some are low-bouncing. Over the course of a 100+ point match, different conditions can help or hurt players—depending on their game-style, stroke-production, grip choice, and a myriad of other factors.
The courts in Rotterdam are playing exceptionally slow this week, rewarding heavy spins and slices much more than hard and flat ball-striking. A new Instagram account Hartru1 spoke with Reilly Opelka to discuss the court conditions after his loss to Marton Fucsovics on Monday. According to Opelka, “the court is very gritty, plays medium-slow, and the light Technifibre ball is fluffing up late in ball changes.” These conditions are very similar to those at the Paris Masters, where Khachanov stunned Novak Djokovic in 2018 to win his biggest-ever title.
The still, indoor conditions reward Khachanov’s huge serve, the grittiness of the court enhances his fantastic kick-serve, while the slower-than-normal speed gives him time to wind up his extreme western-grip forehand. It also helps that he’s hitting his backhand with pinpoint precision, like he does against Wawrinka on match point.
Khachanov has been wearing down his opponents with a barrage of unattackable groundstrokes. He’s not pulling the trigger early, but instead ripping the ball towards safe, repeatable targets. His most impressive points so far this week are not compatible in GIF-form because they are too long, but here’s an example of his ultra-heavy hitting that sets up an easy finish at net.
Tsitsipas will need to hit two shots well in order to win this match: his backhand return, and his inside-in forehand. One of the few knocks on the Greek’s mostly complete game is his ability to return a big first-serve with his one-handed backhand. A few aggressive returns like this one in Shanghai will go a long way on Friday.
Khachanov much prefers his inside-out forehand to cross-court. He’ll target the Tsitsipas backhand early and often, but if he doesn’t hit his spot, Tsitsipas will need to run around and crack his inside-in forehand to change the pattern, and hopefully earn a few short balls by doing so.
There’s no question Tsitsipas is the more complete player, which is why he’s listed as a solid -220 favorite. But if he’s not already there, it seems like Khachanov is about to enter the zone, and may never get a better chance than this to upset the world No. 6.
The Pick: Karen Khachanov