Stars Of Tomorrow: Karen Khachanov
Karen Khachanov stands several metres behind the baseline, staring down the barrel of a first serve. The crowd’s anxiety is a stifling haze of pressure and expectation, but young Karen is not fazed. So deeply embedded in the moment, if you look closely, roots can be seen burrowing from the 17-year-old’s legs into the Olympic Stadium foundation below.
Break point. Convert this and serve for the match. But this is not just any ordinary match. A berth in the quarter-finals of his hometown ATP World Tour event in Moscow is on the line. At No. 808 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, it is just his second professional event at any level. His opponent, Janko Tipsarevic, is the third seed, 2011 champion and a former Top 10 player. Was it mentioned that Karen is only 17?
A 120 mph (194 km/h) serve is launched down the T. Karen’s reply is devastating. He takes one step to his right and sends a forehand return careening down the line. The ball slams into the back wall with a thud. Game, Khachanov. The scorched hard court is screaming, the crowd is screaming, the tennis world is screaming. A dam of adrenaline is on the verge of spilling over as he gives a subdued fist pump to his box. He saunters to his chair, his focus affixed on the task at hand: serve it out.
Five points later, Karen is screaming.
The arena erupts in a deafening chorus of cheers as their native son becomes the first 17 year old to reach an ATP World Tour quarter-final in six years. The legendary heavy metal rock band Deep Purple performed the following week at Olympic Stadium and there’s a good chance the echoes from tennis fans were still ringing.
Karen’s Top 100 Ascent
For many developing talents, immediate success at such a ripe age is a launching pad that leads to wild cards into big events, as the player is directed into a perceived accelerated path to stardom. For Karen, however, it was important to allow his game to mature on his own terms, while trusting in the process. His breakout success on a big stage was merely a taste of what’s to come.
“There were expectations and I felt that after I made the quarter-finals it was going to be easy to beat a lot of the guys on the ATP World Tour, but it was not,” Khachanov said in an exclusive interview with ATPWorldTour.com “I wasn't ready to do it more consistently. That's why it took me longer to find my game and play better. You just have to pass through these stages and trust that you will find it. Somebody gets there longer, somebody has it slower.”
Khachanov, who celebrated his 20th birthday two weeks ago, has become the latest Next Generation player to break into the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings. Two and a half years after he first announced himself to the tennis world, the Russian has arrived. Armed with a lethal shotmaking arsenal, predicated on a fierce forehand and imposing serve, he has seen his position in the Emirates ATP Rankings soar nearly 150 spots in the past year. Up to No. 98 following a semi-final run at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Prostejov, Czech Repubic, the only direction is up for the Moscow native.
“It feels great, because I achieved one small step in my career. I hope there will be bigger goals and I will achieve them as well. It's a great start to get to the top of men's tennis. It motivates me to work more and get even better. I don't usually like to talk about goals. I'd rather concentrate on the work I have to do and then I will see what I achieved and how it paid off.
“I have been more focused on passing through the stages by myself without help from wild cards (into ATP World Tour events). I’m trying to go through it step by step. It was a long process. Last year, I won three Futures titles in a row and then my first Challenger in Istanbul and my ranking got higher. This year, I'm playing bigger tournaments.”
Khachanov’s trust in the process has seen him travel the world on the ATP Challenger Tour since his breakout run at the VTB Kremlin Cup, amassing 50 match wins across 15 countries. His maiden title would come on the hard courts of Istanbul last year, rallying from a set down to upset top seed Sergiy Stakhovsky in the final, before notching a second crown on the clay of Samarkand, Uzbekistan (d. Ramirez Hidalgo).
Now based in Barcelona, Khachanov has spent two years under the tutelage of Galo Blanco at the 4Slam Tennis Academy. In April, the 6’6” right-hander entered qualifying at the ATP World Tour 500 event in his newly adopted hometown and would battle through a pair of three-set matches to secure his spot in the main draw. Then, a big moment arrived. The 20 year old scored his first main draw match win on the ATP World Tour since his breakthrough run in Moscow in 2013, beating Aljaz Bedene. But Khachanov wasn’t satisfied. One day later, he would claim another milestone in stunning World No. 17 Roberto Bautista Agut for a berth in the Round of 16. He was made to work in yet another three-set affair, notching his first win over a Top 20 opponent.
“It was a big result. It felt great to win a match at the ATP level again. I had the best feelings at that moment. Mentally I was ready for the match and I was thinking that I had to stay calm and not let in negative emotions. That's what I did, even after I lost the second set. I kept going and I got the win. It was the biggest win of my career.”
Blanco says it is just the beginning of a great career for his pupil and believes that with continued hard work and maturity, nothing can stop him.
“The goal we have is to be better every day and then the rest will come,” said Blanco, a former coach of World No. 9 Milos Raonic. “He’s really humble and friendly. A funny kid too. In the end, the good thing is that there is room to improve in all areas of his game. He didn't play many big tournaments yet, because I want him to go through all the levels and earn his ranking by winning on all surfaces. I hope that when he starts playing the big tournaments he will have the level to compete with everybody.”
Eyes On The Road Ahead
Khachanov, who idolised Juan Martin del Potro and countryman Marat Safin for their charisma, aggression and power, is always looking to better himself both on and off the court. In pursuit of a degree in physical education, he takes online classes from a Russian sport university when on the road at tournaments and in training in Barcelona. While he understands that his tennis career is his top priority, the son of an international businessman (father Abgar) and neurologist (mother Natalia) admits that there are no guarantees in life and achieving a higher education is essential.
“During tournaments I read and study, but it's not too difficult. It’s important to have a diploma. I want to educate myself and learn more about the body. I do it for myself. It does help me a bit with my training. I studied biology and it's important to know your body.”
Now, even with a shiny new Top 100 spot in the Emirates ATP Rankings, Khachanov remains focused on the process. A pair of ATP Challenger Tour events in Moscow and Poprad Tatry, Slovakia, await, followed by a second appearance in Wimbledon qualifying.
One of six #NextGen stars in the Top 100, joining Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev, Borna Coric, Taylor Fritz and Kyle Edmund, he is already looking forward to many future battles against the rising contingent. The #NextGen group also includes compatriot and close friend Andrey Rublev, who trains in the same academy in Barcelona. Khachanov is quick to point out that while everyone has their own path, he uses their success as motivation to work even harder.
“We all have our own style and I have my advantages and weaknesses that I have to improve on. It motivates me, because we will hopefully compete against each other. I am happy for them that they are doing well, but hopefully we can all be closer to the top soon.”