INTERVIEW: Khachanov looking to ride the NextGen wave

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Rising Russian: Karen Khachanov.

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.

ATP's NextGen at Indian Wells.

ATP’s NextGen at Indian Wells.

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.”

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Rising teens Naomi Osaka and Ana Konjuh discuss challenges of life on tour

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On the rise: Naomi Osaka.

As the tennis tour moves from one desert to another with action kicking off tomorrow at Indian Wells following a two-week stop in the Middle East, a group of young players are hoping to make a statement at one of the biggest tournaments on the circuit.

Of the six top-100 players born in 1997 or later, four of them will be making their Indian Wells main draw debut this week by virtue of their ranking: Ana Konjuh (No33), Naomi Osaka (No52), Catherine “Cici” Bellis (No55) and Jelena Ostapenko (No64).

The remaining two are Russian pair Daria Kasatkina (No35), who made a stunning run to the quarter-finals in the California desert last year on her first appearance, and Natalia Vikhlyantseva (No78), who is currently contesting the qualifying rounds.

Barring Vikhlyantseva, who fell in qualies, members of the young crew all featured in the main draw in Dubai for the first time last month and are still getting used to showing up at the tour’s top-tier events.

Each one of them is unique and they’ve progressed at different paces, but they share common features: They’re all ambitious and they all get along.

Osaka, a 19-year-old Japanese-Haitian who is based in Florida, is perhaps the most compelling of the bunch. She reached the third round in her first three grand slam main draw outings and made her first final appearance in Tokyo last fall, beating the likes of Dominika Cibulkova en route.

She boasts a powerful, brave game that is a stark contrast to her quirky, shy, soft-spoken persona off the court.

Former world No2 Agnieszka Radwanska described Osaka as having “adult tennis” but the teenager laughs when the Pole’s comments are relayed to her.

“That surprises me. I think she thinks I’m like a brainless ball-basher,” Osaka told Sport360 with a self-deprecating chuckle on the sidelines of the Dubai tournament two weeks ago.

“I feel that I’m working on a few things and I need time to adjust to how that is. I feel I have to mature a little bit more and everything is a little bit of a new experience still. This is the first time I’ve played this tournament, I’m actually happy I won a round,” she said following her second round exit in the Emirates.

“I’m the type of player that has to keep doing certain things no matter if I’m losing or not, just to practice it. I’m supposed to be looking to win the tournament not win the match. So like the bigger picture other than just winning this match, I have to think about how I’m going to play in the future. I want to develop into a player that is like an all-rounder that is very aggressive.”

Osaka isn’t just making adjustments to her game to compete at a higher level, she’s also been working on her anxiety, which she says she’s been doing a much better job at dealing with it this year compared to the past.

She’s also been trying to make friends. Osaka has been daring herself to get in touch with fellow players on social media, as a start, and now actually says hello to a few peers, like Konjuh, a Croatian big-hitter who is far more outgoing.

“I think all the other girls my age, they’re probably all friends because they played the juniors together and I didn’t. So I’m kind of like a strange person on the side trying to get in,” explains Osaka. “But for me personally I think it’s a bit sad if you don’t have any friends here because you see everyone all year round, so to isolate yourself from everyone – that would be lonely I think.”

She apologises when I tell her I follow her on Snapchat – not realising how compelling she is on the social media network – and jokes that Konjuh might find it “creepy” that Osaka considers her a friend.

“I say hi to people. But it’s very hard for me. I have more friends now, like people I can have conversations with, but I think I have to see them more, because I’m still new a little bit, so I think when they get used to me, being really weird, then maybe they’ll talk to me more,” she adds.

Osaka, the 2016 WTA Newcomer of the Year, signed a worldwide marketing and management agreement with IMG last fall. She says joining the sports management giants has been an illuminating experience.

“It’s really kind of fascinating a little bit but it also makes me want to push myself more to do better so that I feel like their choice was justified,” she admits. “I think I did really well in Tokyo and that was kind of like the first (tournament after which I signed with them) and then it’s been like a roller coaster. I think I’m going to do well this year I just have to get over some bumps.”

In what way does she find it fascinating?

“A lot of new things that I’ve seen the good players do and I don’t really consider myself like a good player, like Agnieszka Radwanska and Belinda Bencic. I’m like ‘oh, they want me to do this? Why? People don’t really care about me’. It’s really new everything,” she says sheepishly.

SEARCHING FOR PATIENCE

Konjuh, a former junior world No1 who won both the Australian and US Open girls’ singles titles in 2013, is the highest-ranked of the group and enjoyed a run to the quarters in Dubai before she fell to Angelique Kerber.

She posted her biggest result to date at the US Open last year when she reached the quarter-finals, beating Radwanska along the way.

The 19-year-old from Dubrovnik feels having several teens like herself, rising through the ranks, has been a big help, although she admits life on the pro circuit can often get in the way of childhood friendships.

“In juniors it was a bit different because we all hung out, it wasn’t that professional,” said Konjuh.

“At this level now, you have your team, it’s a pretty big team, you have three, four people with you, so you don’t really have time to relax and just hang out. But I have a few friends from juniors, (ex-world No7) Belinda Bencic, Jelena Ostapenko, Daria Kasatkina, we grew up together so it’s pretty awesome to have them here. I think we motivate each other to be better, so we’re happy to have each other.”

Ana Konjuh in Dubai.

Ana Konjuh in Dubai.

Konjuh considers “being stubborn” her greatest asset and you can tell just from watching her matches. She is the third child amongst four daughters and says she grew up in a female-dominant environment which she believes may have attributed to her strong personality.

She just started working with a new coach, Zeljko Krajan, who is Croatia’s Davis Cup captain, and hopes he can help her add patience to her game.

“I’m still young so practice is still an important thing for me. So I try not to play as many tournaments and have a few weeks of training in between,” she says. “I’m an aggressive player so I try to make points a bit faster than I should so I need to become more patient to be on the court longer, even if I don’t want to.”

Konjuh is still in the phase where she’s enjoying the new stops on tour where she hadn’t visited before and there are tournaments she’d love to cross off her list like Acapulco and Istanbul, although her father won’t let her go to the latter right now for safety reasons.

While the younger players are trying to make waves on tour, the fact remains that the world No1 is the 35-year-old Serena Williams, who recently beat her older sister Venus, 36, in the Australian Open final.

“It makes you think you have 15 more years to play tennis,” said Konjuh, referring to that vintage Melbourne final.

“I say to myself to stop maybe earlier because I would like to have a family and a life after tennis so I really hope I can make my dreams come true before I turn 28 or 29 so I can live the rest of my life enjoying what I did before.

“But they’re 35, 36, it makes you think, it’s a slam final, not a smaller tournament, and I think they motivate you to work harder and that at whatever age you are, everything is possible.”

Halfway through the conversation, Konjuh is interrupted by both Kasatkina, and 22-year-old Tunisian Ons Jabeur, who cracked a few jokes with the Croatian before moving on.

“It’s very nice that we’re like together, not fighting, or something like this,” says Kasatkina. “It’s good because we’re the next generation, we have to be like the example for the kids, for the future champions, so it’s good.”

Jabeur believes people have the wrong impression about the women’s locker room and that it’s not the frosty, cut-throat environment you’d expect it to be. The younger generation seem keen to keep things friendly, at least for now.

“They have the wrong idea about women in the locker room. That we fight or we have knives or something. No we’re cool. I’m friends with everyone. We’re cooler than men, I tell you,” says Jabeur with a laugh.

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Down the line: Sharapova's wildcard debate

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Returning soon: Maria Sharapova.

Maria Sharapova is not due to return from her doping suspension until April 26 yet debate over the Russian star’s impending comeback has already taken over many press conferences in the last couple of weeks.

A year ago Sharapova announced she had tested positive for the banned substance meldonium and was later handed a two-year suspension, subsequently reduced to 15 months.

The five-time grand slam champion has already received wildcards for the clay events in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome and is posing a predicament for French Open organisers who must decide whether they will invite her to Roland Garros or not.

The new president of the French tennis federation (FFT) Bernard Giudicelli said Sharapova will meet with him to plead her case before a final decision is made but players have already been weighing in on whether the 29-year-old deserves a wildcard.

Andy Murray told the Times he believes players should “work their way back” upon their return from doping bans rather than receive invitations, Roger Federer was on the fence in his opinion, while Andy Roddick said the situation is different if we’re talking about a small tournament that can benefit from Sharapova’s present or if the event in question is a grand slam.

Nick Kyrgios was quoted by ESPN as saying: “it doesn’t make sense to support people who cheat.”

It’s an interesting debate and you can definitely see both sides of the argument.

On one hand, how can we be calling for stricter anti-doping measures and more funds directed to anti-doping and then expect tournaments to gladly open their doors to athletes who were suspended for taking banned substances?

I’m not against wildcards for Sharapova but it is understandable if tournament directors or fans or other players think that there are other worthy recipients for said wildcards – someone who hasn’t lost their ranking due to a doping ban.

On the other hand, Sharapova has accepted her punishment, has done her time, and won’t get her ranking back unless her first few tournaments grant her wildcards.

I would understand if the French Open invites her, not just because she’s a two-time winner there, but because the deadline for acceptance is before her return date. Wimbledon however is a different story. She will have had some time to gain ranking points and could potentially make it into the qualifying or main draw on her own merit.

Personally, I think it would be amazing if Sharapova played qualies at Roehampton this summer. Granted they would need to step up their security measures and make sure they can accommodate large numbers at a venue that is typically not built for that, but if they can make necessary arrangements, Sharapova earning her place in the main draw via qualifying would probably mean a lot to the fans, and create just such an exciting narrative ahead of Wimbledon.

Besides rife debates over Sharapova, here are some highlights from the week that was in tennis, and a look ahead at Indian Wells.

THUMBS UP

Ashleigh Barty

A tremendous week for the 20-year-old Aussie, who quit tennis and took up cricket before returning to the sport last year, saw her win seven matches in a row in Kuala Lumpur to win her first WTA singles title and break the top-100 for the first time. Barty landed at No92 in the rankings this week and also won the doubles crown in KL with Casey Dellacqua. If you weren’t on it already, it’s time you got on board the Barty train because this is just the beginning for her.

Sombrero Sam: Querrey had a good week in Mexico.

Sombrero Sam: Querrey had a good week in Mexico.

Sam Querrey

Rafael Nadal, Nick Kyrgios, Dominic Thiem, David Goffin and Kyle Edmund – that is one impressive list of scalps Querrey took down en route to the title in Acapulco – his ninth trophy of his career and second at the ATP 500 level. What a week from the American, who has now moved back into the top-30. His current position of No26 is his highest since August 2013.

THUMBS DOWN

Bernard Tomic

The 2016 runner-up pulled out of his opener in Acapulco against Donald Young citing heat exhaustion in 27-degree weather. He returned to the court later in the day to play his doubles match with Paolo Lorenzi. For someone dogged by lack of effort accusations throughout his career, Tomic certainly isn’t helping himself.

Eugenie Bouchard

The Canadian’s promising start to 2017 took a sudden turn for the worse when she stumbled out of the opening round in Acapulco to Ajla Tomljanovic, who was playing her first competitive match in 13 months after struggling with a shoulder injury. Hats off to Tomljanovic, she was truly missed, but you’d also expect better from Bouchard.

TALKING POINTS

Will Djokovic return to form?

Losing to an on-fire Nick Kyrgios can never be considered a bad loss but Novak Djokovic will no doubt head to Indian Wells with some level of uncertainty over his form. The Serb’s last two tour-level outings were a quarter-final defeat to Kyrgios in Acapulco and a second round exit to Denis Istomin at the Australian Open. He has 3000 points to defend in the next two months having won Indian Wells, Miami and Madrid last year, which means the pressure on him will not subside any time soon.

Can Kerber get her season back on track?

The second-ranked Angelique Kerber made some progress by reaching the semi-finals in Dubai, playing some solid tennis en route, but the fact remains that she holds an average 7-5 win-loss record this season. The good news is she’s not defending any points at Indian Wells, so the pressure if off. The bad news is that she hasn’t won a match there since 2013.

French break-up

One of the most successful doubles partnerships in the last couple of seasons has come to an end as Kristina Mladenovic announced she is parting ways with her French compatriot Caroline Garcia. The pair won Roland Garros together last year and also made the 2016 US Open final.

Mladenovic said the reason behind their split is because Garcia wants to focus on her singles but we can’t ignore the comments Mladenovic made after France’s Fed Cup loss to Switzerland last month where she slammed a compatriot’s lack of commitment to the team. She didn’t name Garcia and later said the remarks were about Oceane Dodin but French media believe otherwise.

Mladenovic hasn’t announced her new doubles partner yet but considering Martina Hingis split with Coco Vandeweghe and is only two tournaments into her new tie-up with Chan Yung-Jan, a Mladenovic-Hingis pairing sounds like a fabulous idea. Anyone else agree?

The curious life of a touring tennis player

Spare a thought for Russia’s Evgeny Donskoy who last week upset Roger Federer in Dubai to reach the quarter-finals as a qualifier but is this week back on the Challenger tour, playing a $50k in Zhuhai, while the world’s best players are all at Indian Wells. That must be quite the abrupt switch for Donskoy!

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