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.”
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.
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.