By Jane Voigt
Do you know Karen Khachanov? Probably not. But, you will. Playing in his inaugural French Open, he advanced to the third round today. That’s a monstrous achievement in a crowded field where talent abounds.
At six-foot-six Khachanov’s favorite stroke is his serve. It was a force to contend with today as he upset Tomas Berdych (No. 13) in straight sets, 7-5, 6-4, 6-4.
Khachanov hit 12 aces, and won 88% of points on his first serve and 59% of points on his second serve. He hit 51 winners to 20 unforced errors. He even nudged Berdych on points won at the net: 75% to 74%. Berdych, in fact, didn’t have one break chance the entire match.
It was Khachanov’s second victory over a top-20 player. He defeated David Goffin in Barcelona earlier this month, as well.
Ten years apart in age — Berdych is 31 and Khachanov is 21 — the match, which indeed was an upset, says more about what’s coming in men’s tennis rather than the one-time loss chalked up for the Czech.
Khachanov, from Russia, turned pro four years back. Berdych has been on tour for 15 years. The veteran was ranked in the top-ten for ten consecutive years, slipping out of that elite group in January after injuries put him on the sideline.
Khachanov’s one title was earned last fall in Chengdu, China, a couple weeks after another young-gun, Alexandr Zverev, won his first title in St. Petersburg at 19. Although the German has been on the radar for some time, Khachanov has yet to grab much attention, although the win in China catapulted him 55 spots in the rankings. That will all change if he beats his next opponent, John Isner (No. 21).
The America, at six-foot-nine, is not a natural clay-courter and struggles with movement on the slippery red surface. However, his serve can knock the stained socks off the best on tour. Isner has reached the fourth round in Paris twice: 2014 and 2016. Composure will be tantamount to victory, but the kid knows how to compete.
In Chengdu he defeated four seeded players: Joao Sousa, Feliciano Lopez and Victor Troicki. That says bundles for the Russian who spent most of 2016 at Challenger Tournaments and lost in qualifications at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon.
“It wasn’t until the year’s fourth major, the U. S. Open, that Khachanov appeared on TV screens, when he won a set from Kei Nishikori [the 2014 finalist] in their second-round match,” tennis.com reported.
Khachanov was born in Moscow but moved to Barcelona to work with his current coach, Galo Blanco. Training on red clay alongside a Spaniard has given Khachanov an edge on the terre battue. His ground strokes are honed to the bounce, spin and height off the slower surface. His forehand is whippy with little loop, a strategic asset as the game continues to speed up.
Another tennis idol for Khachanov is Russian Marat Safin. After Khachanov won Chengdu, he showed off some Safin-esque bravado, saying, “I was pleased with myself and my team. But this is just the beginning,” The Telegraph reported. However, he seemed to know that the road ahead is long and full of pot holes. “It’s one thing winning a few matches, but to rise up and be consistent it’s a lot of work, and that’s what I intend to do. I have to improve and get as high as I can.”
Recently, tennis pundits searched for those players on the verge of breakthroughs. They begged for one to come forward. One that was in his early 20s. The hold on the top by the so-called Big Four seemed to box out challengers, at every level and age. Now, when, for the first time, all four of the top men’s seeds are over 30, the wheels are turning.
Others newbies to track in Paris are:
- Hyena Chung: He’ll face number-8 seed Kei Nishikori on Saturday for a place in week two. (To read more about Chung, click here for Down The Tee’s story.)
- Jiri Vesely: Although he’s appearing in his fifth French Open, the six-six lefty ousted Jack Sock (No. 14) in the opening round and is into the third round for the first time. If conditions continue to reward high bounces and faster play, we could see Vesely next week.
- Kyle Edmund: Into his inaugural third round, the Brit is poised. He caught the world’s attention in 2016, as he clinched the fifth match of the Davis Cup weekend and sent Great Britain to the semifinals. He faces former top-20, Kevin Anderson, Saturday. Anderson ousted #NextGen Nick Kyrgios today, 5-7, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2. Anderson is on the way up, after losing much of 2016 to shoulder and ankle surgeries.