Those following the action at Indian Wells this week may have spotted a tall Russian with a booming serve and a lightning-fast forehand defeating former world No5 Tommy Robredo in the first round.
His name is Karen Khachanov and his straight-sets triumph over the veteran Spaniard was his first-ever match win at an ATP Masters 1000 tournament.
The 20-year-old Russian is the second-youngest player in the world’s top-52 and is one of the ATP’s ‘NextGen’ stars to watch (players aged 21-and-under on the professional tour).
He had a breakthrough 2016 where he claimed his first ATP title, in Chengdu, last October and is already drawing comparisons to his fellow Russian Marat Safin – the retired two-time grand slam champion and ex-world No1.
Safin was one of Khachanov’s greatest inspirations growing up and while they’re both tall, powerful and hail from the same country, a quick conversation with the young talent makes one realise that the most common trait the two Muscovites share is perhaps their big personality, rather than any physical feature or birthplace.
Safin was renowned for his fiery temperament on the court but he was also charismatic and charming off of it, impressing in the press conference room with his quick wit and unfiltered remarks.
Khachanov, unlike some of his ‘NextGen’ peers, who have either made headlines thanks to controversy, or are curt with the media, seems to be at ease with the attention he’s been getting.
“I think I’m a charismatic person,” the world No52 told Sport360 when asked to describe his personality.
“I like to joke also… I think I have a strong personality – a strong and charismatic personality.”
Does he feel comfortable talking to strangers and fulfilling his press duties?
“What do you think?” he replies with a smile.
At the age of 15, Khachanov moved from Russia to Croatia to train in Split with Goran Ivanisevic’s ex-coach Vedran Martic. Less than two years later, in April 2014, he relocated once again, this time to Barcelona, where he is currently coached by Galo Blanco, who formerly worked with Milos Raonic.
“I think I was quite mature at that time in a way to be alone and start being away from home. I think I dealt with it quite well,” he recalls of the time he first left home as a young teenager.
“I got more used to it with time, at the end of the day, tennis players travel all year, so you’re traveling every week and most of the time you’re away from home. Of course at that age it was tougher. At the beginning I was missing more my family but you get used to it as you’re growing up.”
Khachanov does not sound like your typical 20-year-old athlete. He says he spends his free time playing chess, reading novels – his favourite author is Erich Maria Remarque – and Russian history books, and watching “cultural programmes”.
“I like to play basketball if I can,” he adds.
He’s working on his Spanish – which isn’t as bad as he claims it is – and says he regrets not learning it from the moment he touched down in Barcelona three years ago.
In an attempt to promote the tour’s budding stars, the ATP created the Road to Milan, a race for the ‘NextGen’ players that culminates with a top-eight tournament similar to the format of the World Tour Finals.
After years of concern over the lack of emerging talent, the men’s circuit is witnessing promising signs with the likes of Nick Kyrgios, Sascha Zverev, and Khachanov all picking up maiden titles last season.
Khachanov admits he keeps tabs on his peers and is inspired by their success.
“It was a funny thing last year. Sascha won his first title in St. Petersburg, he beat me in the first round. And then I was practicing hard during that week and I saw that he did it, so I can make it also. And then next week in Chengdu I won my first title,” explained Khachanov.
“And then the week after, Nick Kyrgios won his third title, in Tokyo. So for sure we’re watching how the others are playing and it gives us more motivation I think, it inspires us.”
Khachanov’s start to 2017 has been a rocky one. He ended a six-match losing streak with his win over Robredo on Thursday, and it appears adjusting to the intensity of the circuit in his first full season on the ATP tour is proving challenging.
“It’s everything. You have to have a better level of tennis, be prepared physically, mentally of course, to play every match 100 per cent. Because against better guys who are ranked higher than you, you have to get ready and play every match full,” he says of making the step up to the elite level.
Khachanov, who next faces the 11th-seeded David Goffin in the Indian Wells second round, is hoping to make a name for himself although he is aware of the Safin comparisons.
“I think some people compare us to each other. He was one of my favourite players when I was growing up, so I was following him. He was No1 in the world,” he says of the 37-year-old Russian.
“I think I was trying to look how he plays and try to – not copy, but follow his game. I don’t think we have really similar technique, let’s say, with my forehand, but I was looking more at the players who have an aggressive way of playing.”
Khachanov also admires Juan Martin del Potro and says his choice of idols is probably why he considers the US Open his favourite tournament – a place where both Safin and the Argentine both enjoyed their first grand slam title success.
Asked if he has any goals for the season, Khachanov said: “I don’t like to put goals ranking-wise. I’d rather focus more on my improvement with my team, the things that we were working on during the offseason and that we have to keep doing during the start of the season and during the whole year. So then we’ll see where it brings me at the end of the year.”