Karen Khachanov proud of taking leap from Next Gen prospect to Masters champion

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On the move: Karen Khachanov.

Four consecutive victories over top-10 players, including one over Novak Djokovic in the final, to clinch a maiden Masters 1000 crown has left Karen Khachanov on cloud nine and he admits he is just winding down from his dream finish to the season.

The freshly-crowned Paris Masters champion, who was an alternate at this week’s ATP Finals, had been waiting for that one big result to consolidate his status as a young force to be reckoned with on tour and that result finally came in Paris-Bercy.

“Emotionally of course a great moment, especially to finish the season like that, with these memories, with this level of game, the emotions of course are at the highest point,” said Khachanov in London, reflecting on his latest achievement.

“I mean still already one week has passed and I’m just calming down. I’m happy to be here, even as an alternate, to see the facilities, to see how are the best top-eight players approaching, playing and preparing to be part of them so hopefully for next year I can qualify directly.”

Being an alternate at the O2 in London doesn’t require much of a player but Khachanov has kept himself busy, hitting daily with the players contesting the ATP Finals, making sure he’d be ready if he was needed to replace anyone who got injured. His services were ultimately not needed and he can now go on holiday and celebrate his career-best season, with an extra $110,000 in the bank for being in London.

Since the start of Wimbledon, only two players have managed to defeat Djokovic, in 36 matches contested by the Serb – Khachanov in Paris, and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Toronto.

Before Paris, Khachanov was 1-10 win-loss against top-10 opposition in 2018. He had two titles under his belt though, captured in Marseille in February and Moscow last month, but it was actually his tight four-set defeat to Rafael Nadal in the US Open third round that proved to be a key turning point for the 22-year-old Russian.

“To be the only player to beat Djokovic in the second part of the year [alongside Tsitsipas] of course – I said many times after the match with Rafa [in New York], I think it was disappointing for me to lose this match because I still had chances and I was playing at a really high level I think during the entire match and I wasn’t losing it, I was mentally there, physically there, and I said in the press conference, ‘I hope this match gives me a lot of experience and sooner or later it will turn on the other side and I will win these kind of matches against top guys’, so that’s basically what happened, I was really believing in that,” explained Khachanov.

The higher you move up the tennis hierarchy, the slimmer the margins and it’s the little things that can make all the difference. For Khachanov, improving his record against top-10 players like he did in Paris all came down to mental toughness when it mattered the most.

“At the end you can make the same amount of mistakes, like the top guys are doing, but not in the crucial moments. So that’s the most important thing. I had these couple of matches against the top guys where I think I made some mistakes in these crucial moments and these last few weeks I was playing really good in these specific moments, when it’s deuce, when it’s tight score, pressure is coming, that’s difference. So at the end I just won those points and the match went on my side,” said the Muscovite.

“I’m happy and proud that this year I could play this way, consistent with my results, consistent with my game, and at the end, where I am right now, okay maybe I wouldn’t have expected it if you asked me at the beginning of the year, but still I was believing it, that if I bring my game to this level I will be where I want to be. Because at the end my goals are high, expectation is high from myself and I believe I belong to be where the top players are.”

Khachanov is among a group of talented young players currently making their move on the tour, many of which are Russian, or have Russian parents. Khachanov, Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev are all Russian. Denis Shapovalov is Canadian, Stefanos Tsitsipas is Greek, Alexander Zverev is German, but they all have at least one parent who is Russian.

“Okay they have Russian roots, they are not Russian,” notes Khachanov when asked if he can find an explanation behind this current wave of Russian talent.

“I don’t know. I think it’s kind of a coincidence. It would be great if all them represented Russia, imagine how good Russia’s Davis Cup team would be? But unfortunately it’s not like that. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or not, it’s just our generation is like that, stronger than the others I think in the past.”

Does it help having many Russian speakers around on tour similar to his age?

“Not much I think. At the end, still, we know each other pretty well but I’m not the greatest friends with Stefanos or Denis. My best friends are Andrey and Daniil Medvedev. But still we’re good. Even with Sascha[Zverev], I’m closer to him than to Stefanos and Denis because they’re a bit younger and maybe we didn’t play together in juniors, that’s maybe the main thing. But again, we are now more and more at the same tournaments on tour and we’re good together,” he says.

At the end of last season, after competing in the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, Khachanov announced he was splitting with his coach of four years Galo Blanco. He then reunited with a former coach of his, Vedran Martic, who used to work with Goran Ivanisevic.

“Like a specialist, I respect him so much,” says Khachanov of Martic. “He knew me from juniors and that’s why I felt really comfortable and I was believing that he could bring my tennis to the next level.”

At 198cm, and with a huge game that has carried him to No. 11 in the world, Khachanov cuts an imposing figure on the tennis court. He has picked up four career ATP titles so far and has reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam on three occasions.

(Credit: Instagram/@karenkhachanov).

(Credit: Instagram/@karenkhachanov).

He has been married to wife Veronika since he was 19 and believes stability in his personal life has greatly helped his tennis.

“Yes of course, absolutely. Okay maybe our story is a little bit special because we’ve known each other from a young age, really from eight years old and I feel like I’ve known my wife for 100 years, of course in a good way, and that’s the way I feel. You feel the support always on the side, she’s helping with a lot of things and always supporting me when she’s traveling with me and I’m thankful for that. I think the biggest part of my success belongs to her,” he gushes.

Growing up, Khachanov admired Juan Martin del Potro and Marat Safin. He’s been compared to the latter as they both hail from Russia, trained in Spain, and have similar games, and it’s a comparison Khachanov doesn’t shy away from.

“I like it of course. He was my favourite tennis player growing up. Of course it’s nice. I never try to imitate, I like to be myself, but on the other side, to be compared to him is a privilege. I like him also as a person, when we met with him five years ago, he’s a really cool guy. Still it’s a long way for me to achieve where he was and what he did,” he said of the two-time Grand Slam champion.

Khachanov chuckles when a journalist asks him if he every thinks about becoming the first from the younger generation to win a major.

“Of course not. I’m joking man, of course yes. What are you talking about, man, how can you ask this question?” he says with a laugh.

“I’m thinking but watch out still it’s – you always think at every tournament you can win but to win the tournament you have to think that you need to win seven matches so I’d rather talk about each match I have to play and focus on every match rather than talking that I can win a Grand Slam or not, that’s a really long way. I think nobody can guarantee… the desire of course is there, that I would like to win a Grand Slam, but you need to think match by match.”

While he maintains that he sets high standards for himself, he isn’t burdening himself with setting goals for next season just yet.

“Still it’s too early to say what I expect. I expect to keep working the same way, just try to become a better person, better player, and to keep going my way, where are the goals and try to achieve. I don’t like to put specifically any brackets, I just like going smoothly the way I am and to enjoy and to keep working, of course that’s the main thing. Without hard work nothing pays off,” he concludes.

Khachanov will warm up for the 2019 season by competing at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, where he joins Djokovic, Nadal, Kevin Anderson, Dominic Thiem and Chung Hyeon from December 27-29, 2018.

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Roger Federer welcomes introduction of ATP Cup and team events

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Roger Federer believes it’s too soon to pass a verdict on the introduction of the new ATP Cup as well as the revamped Davis Cup but is pleased that team competitions are popping up on the tennis calendar.

The Swiss, whose company Team8 launched another team event, the Laver Cup, last year, was speaking after booking himself a ticket to the semis of the ATP Finals, topping his group with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Kevin Anderson on Thursday.

The ATP Cup was unveiled at the O2 Arena on Thursday, and will be staged in January 2020 across three Australian cities. The revamped Davis Cup will be held in Madrid in November 2019. Both events will follow a similar World Cup-like format.

“Well, we haven’t seen the new Davis Cup yet. We haven’t seen a new World Team Cup yet, which used to exist in Dusseldorf, which now is in Australia,” said Federer, who is into the semis of the ATP Finals for the 15th time in 16 appearances.

“I think we have to wait and see how it is. It’s so nice that we have so many highlights, so many tournaments to choose from. Clearly if the World Team Cup is going to be held, players will want to play that first week of the year, so you would think it’s going to be exciting.

“The Davis Cup has incredibly rich history. You would think the players are going to play that. From that standpoint, I think there’s not that much change, per se, or more tournaments on the calendar. It just happens that there’s more team events, which I think the players are happy about.”

Federer referred to the IPTL, a team exhibition league that took place for three years before it folded for financial reasons, as an example of how successful and attractive team competitions can be.

“If you make it in a team format, it can be fun. Players enjoy being with somebody else than just fighting for yourself. I see it in their eyes. I remember at the IPTL, talking to the women players, they were like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so much fun for three weeks. Be on a team, support one another on a team, practice with one another, be with one another’,” said the 37-year-old.

“You forget how, I don’t want to say it’s lonely as a tennis player sometimes, but when you win sometimes like tonight, game, set, match, Federer, you fist pump, look at your team, I’m happy, but you’re on your own.

“Team events, like Davis Cup, Hopman Cup, Laver Cup, you’re playing for somebody else, something else, a country, a region, whatever it may be. I think that makes the player quite happy and gives a different feel that it can actually also fuel you for other ATP events or other just tournaments.

“We’ve seen that the energy that some players brought at the Laver Cup, we’ve seen the emotions in Davis Cup, which we’ll see also in the World Team Cup in the future. I see the point. We don’t know yet. As we don’t know yet, let’s wait and see what happens.”

The ITF and ATP are at odds regarding their competing tournaments while players continue to complain about the length of the tennis season and how physically and mentally taxing it is.

Djokovic said on Wednesday in London that the tour should focus more on quality rather than quantity when it comes to its structure and calendar, while 21-year-old Alexander Zverev reiterated his discontent at the length of the season.

“I haven’t felt my best in, like, two months, to be honest,” said Zverev at the O2. “The issue is that our season is way too long. That’s the issue. But I’ve said it before. We play for 11 months a year. That’s ridiculous. No other professional sport does that.”

But not every player is taking the same stance as the German youngster.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, known for playing heavy schedules, admits the offseason is short but is not complaining.

“We have basically a never ending season, I would say. Now I will go one week holidays, then I spend few days at home, then… I think the most important period of the season is starting, the offseason, the only time where we have time to practice and to really improve all the stuff what we need to work for. That’s how it is in tennis,” said Thiem, who defeated Kei Nishikori on Thursday for his first win of the week but was eliminated from the ATP Finals as Federer and Anderson advanced from the group.

“I think we cannot complain about it because we have a very nice life with that. The only thing which would be better if the year would have 13 months.”

Federer feels it is up to the player to pick and choose the tournaments and schedule they see fit and sees no harm in adding new events and giving players more options to compete if they want to.

“As a team, player and team, you decide which are your priorities and how much can a body take, how much can a mind take, how much travel can someone endure,” said Federer, who hasn’t played the clay swing for the past two seasons.

“The good thing is we as players are not employed by a club. I can walk right now out of the door and go onto vacation if I want to. Nobody is going to stop me. They won’t like it, but I can. That’s a massive privilege, I believe, that a tennis player has. I think we’ve done a nice job from a player standpoint to understand it’s not something we do, out of respect to the fans, the tournament organizers, the sponsors and so forth, and also just for the integrity of the game.

“There’s two ways to look at it. One, it’s nice that there’s so many tournaments. When you get injured, not like skiing, you’re going to miss the entire season.

“The other way, it would be amazing to have five months to work on your game. You could really maximise the player you are, the potential you have. Obviously with the little time we have, there’s only so much you can do. Both are positive and negative. But the way the tour is structured right now, I just think you have to be very disciplined within the team to decide what’s best for that player, and the player needs to also give his opinion. It’s a tricky one, but a good one because we have a lot of highlights in tennis that we really can’t complain.”

Federer is now two wins away from a 100th career title, and a first ATP Finals trophy since 2011. He isn’t looking that far ahead just yet though as he waits to learn the identity of his semi-final opponent.

“Personally I’m still not thinking of the number 100. I won’t let that get in my head, make me go crazy because it should be something I’m excited about and not something I should feel extra pressure. As long as I think Novak is in the draw anyhow, he’s playing so good again, it’s never going to be easy,” said Federer.

“My next opponent, I don’t know who it’s going to be, I think it could even be Novak, but I doubt it’s going to be. I think it’s just going to be hard to finish it. I’m happy I gave myself the opportunity. I’m happy that I’m raising my level of play throughout this week. This is what I hope to do. Yeah, it’s exciting to be in this situation now, of course, no doubt.”

Djokovic, who has already qualified for the semis, faces Marin Cilic on Friday night in the closing group stage match of the tournament, while John Isner takes on Zverev earlier in the day. Djokovic will qualify as top of the group in any scenario except if Cilic defeats him and Isner beats Zverev.

If Djokovic tops his group, then he avoid a semi-final against Federer, and would take on Anderson in the last-four on Saturday.

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Novak Djokovic helps unveil new ATP Cup but admits calendar is 'over-saturated'

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Djokovic at the ATP Cup announcement in London on Thursday.

A day after admitting that the tennis calendar is “over-saturated”, Novak Djokovic helped unveil the new ATP Cup that will make its debut in the opening week of 2020.

A revival of the country-versus-country team competition that used to be staged in Dusseldorf from 1978 to 2012, the ATP Cup returns with a new format that is similar to the revamped Davis Cup set to take place starting November 2019 – a situation that has left the tennis world divided and practically at war.

The Davis Cup – run by the ITF and the Gerard Pique-led investment group Kosmos – and the ATP Cup – owned and run by the ATP in collaboration with Tennis Australia – will pit countries against each other in a World Cup-style event that will start with a round robin stage before advancing to the knockouts.

With the Davis Cup scheduled for November 18-24, and the ATP Cup set to be the season-opener for the tour in January 2019, two competing team events will take place within a six-week period.

“Obviously the Davis Cup and World Team Cup situation is delicate. We find ourselves in this kind of particular circumstances and situations that we have to deal with right now,” Djokovic, the world No. 1 and current president of the ATP Player Council told reporters in London on Wednesday.

“I think in the next two years we’ll have both events happening in a very similar format if not the same, six weeks apart. I honestly don’t think it’s good for the sport.

“More job opportunities for players, yes. But I think it’s not sustainable. It will happen that we will have two average events. So I think creating one event is an ideal scenario and I think outcome for everyone.

“From what I’ve heard from conversations with people from all of the sides, different sides in this sport, they all want to have one event because it’s over-saturated with different cups, different events. We have the longest season in all sports. We’re just adding events. We kind of have to try to focus on quality rather than quantity.”

FORMAT

Played across three yet-to-be-announced Australian cities over 10 days in the lead-up to the Australian Open, the ATP Cup will feature teams from 24 countries.

The 2020 ATP Cup will offer US$15 million in prize money and up to 750 ATP Rankings points to the winners.

It will see nations split into six groups, with eight teams emerging from the round-robin stage to compete in the knockout phase until only one team is left standing.

There will be up to five players in each team, with ties comprising two singles matches and one doubles match.

The criteria for entry into the ATP Cup will be based off the ATP ranking of the No. 1 singles player from each country.

STARTING WITH A BANG

ATP executive chairman and president Chris Kermode believes this new event will broaden the audience of the tour, attracting a new set of fans.

“We wanted to do a fresh new team event. We wanted to do something that was very vibrant, different, but equally we wanted to start the season off with a bang,” said Kermode at the unveiling on Thursday.

“That was one of our main goals, in week one, start the ATP tour with a big event that we can then sustain all the way through to finishing at the Nitto ATP Finals here at the O2. So we bookend the calendar. We have a start, we have a finish.”

Tennis Australia, who are also involved in the Laver Cup that takes place each September, will be announcing the three host cities “in due course”.

“It makes sense to do this event in Australia,” added Kermode. “There’s a huge sporting culture, not just a tennis culture, it’s a summer of sport and Tennis Australia have proved to be great partners. They’ve got the same vision as us for tennis, try to reach a wider audience. There’s no simpler message.

“Our job is to get our star players, which I truly believe are the best athletes in the world, we need to tell their story better to a wider audience and events like this can help telling that story.”

Craig Tiley, the CEO of Tennis Australia, believes the ATP Cup “has the support of the players”, while Roger Federer is happy to see a team event return to the tour.

“I think the players sometimes do feel a little bit lonely on the road, of course with great teams, but playing within a team with other players I think is great fun and I think it’s going to be very successful,” said Federer.

Many details remain unclear, especially with the division of points among team members and whether there is a ranking cut-off for players to take part.

A country like Greece for example has a top player in world No. 15 Stefanos Tsitsipas. But it’s second-highest ranked player, Alexandros Skorilas, is ranked 1236 in the world.

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