It was October 2013 at an ATP Challenger Tour event in Geneva, Switzerland. World No. 114 Jan-Lennard Struff dismissed a 17-year-old Russian named Karen Khachanov in the quarter-finals 6-2, 6-4 in exactly one hour.
On paper, there was nothing special about the match, as the German eased past the then-World No. 511 by breaking serve four times. But Struff could sense then that the Russian was on his way to doing great things in the sport.
“I had a feeling [in 2013] he was already a pretty decent player,” Struff told ATPTour.com. “He was striking the ball very hard and going for his shots. He beat a lot of good guys.”
Nearly six years later, on 10 June, 23-year-old Khachanov cracked the Top 10 of the ATP Rankings for the first time.
As recently as 12 months ago, the Russian was still World No. 38. But for the past two months he has been among the elite of the elite on the ATP Tour. Khachanov, who is the sixth seed at this week’s Coupe Rogers, says his rapid rise can be traced back to last year’s Canadian ATP Masters 1000 tournament held in Toronto, where he made his first semi-final at this level, beating two Top 15 players before losing to eventual champion Rafael Nadal in two tight sets.
“I would say that was the first step to show myself that I am capable of playing in the further stages of the bigger events,” Khachanov told ATPTour.com. “I lost to Rafa here, [but] I also had chances. It was a good match.”
Khachanov, who qualified for the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals in 2017, has long been lauded as one of the biggest ball-strikers on the ATP Tour since he broke onto the scene.
But it took a series of losses to send him to the next level. Following his Toronto loss against Nadal, Khachanov played the legendary lefty about a month later in the third round of the US Open, where the Spaniard needed four hours and 23 minutes to outlast the Russian in a bruising four-set battle.
“The physical [game] is important of course, but I think physically I’m quite good and ready to play against him. We played four sets in four and a half hours, so if we went to a decider it would’ve been more than five hours and I was okay. I was not super fresh, but still,” Khachanov said. “I was managing to control this intensity with him. When you play against Rafa, the intensity is always 150 per cent. So it was more mental of course to really believe that you can beat one of the top guys.
“Coming into the US Open, I was feeling much more confident and there the match had everything. I had chances [there] as well. I think after that I was on one side really disappointed, but from the other side, I really had decided I could play at that level more consistently and that’s what happened, especially at the end of the year.”
Just more than a month later, Khachanov captured his third ATP Tour trophy in Moscow, setting the stage for his biggest breakthrough yet at the Rolex Paris Masters, the final Masters 1000 tournament of the season. Then-World No. 18 Khachanov beat four Top 10 opponents in a row to earn his first triumph at that level, stunning red-hot Novak Djokovic in a straight-sets final to become the lowest-ranked player to claim a Masters trophy since No. 26 Ivan Ljubicic in Indian Wells in 2010.
Khachanov did not start 2019 the way he finished 2018, though, failing to reach a quarter-final until the BNP Paribas Open in March. That’s why the year-end No. 11 needed until June to make his breakthrough into the Top 10.
“The beginning of the year was not as great as I was expecting… but still, it’s a new milestone that I achieved,” Khachanov said. “I just want to get better and maybe have more consistent results this year and to try to aim for higher goals. But [I’m taking it] one step at a time, and first you need to try to be more competitive in more matches and then hopefully my ‘A’ game will work better.”
Khachanov admits he’s in search for one thing in particular: consistency. The Russian advanced to his first Grand Slam quarter-final at Roland Garros, but he is trying to learn how to win when he doesn’t bring his best tennis to the court.
“When you don’t feel perfectly, when you don’t feel as good maybe as you wish and something is not working, you still try to win those kinds of matches. That’s what I think our trio [of the Big Three] is doing all the time,” Khachanov said. “From outside you don’t see it, maybe you think they’re still playing great, but… they are still not happy with their game.
“But they are winning.”
Even if Khachanov hasn’t found another Paris-like result yet this season, he has impressed his peers nonetheless. His countryman Evgeny Donskoy has won both of their FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings in three sets, but the veteran is not surprised by Khachanov’s ascent.
“He’s grown so much, I think. The [ATP] Rankings speak for themselves. He’s grown in his level of performance and grown in his head with mental strength,” Donskoy told ATPTour.com. “Even when he wasn’t in the Top 100, everybody was saying [he could make it], and I was also. If somebody would have told me that this guy will be in the Top 10, I would say, ‘Why not’?”
Donskoy and Struff had those thoughts then, and now Khachanov is turning the entire ATP Tour, and its fans, into believers of his game. Slowly but surely, he’s working to make the Khachanov who triumphed indoors in Paris appear weekly. And for the rest of the players, that’s a scary thought.
“His groundstrokes are so fast and he’s going for his shots,” Struff said. “He’s a good player. A very, very good player.”