We are always breathing, but metaphorically (and sometimes physically — ask the 2006 version of Novak Djokovic), it is harder to breathe when the pressure of a match increases. Like a mountain climber who reaches an elevation 2,000 feet higher than when the day began, the air gets thinner. Oxygen doesn’t flood the lungs as readily. Performance athletes and outdoor adventurers, among others, need to expand their lung capacity so that they can breathe freely when they need to. This is a process of discipline, of training, of work in the service of larger goals — not just for the present moment, but for the future, especially when the future becomes soaked in stress, tension and pressure.
Friday afternoon at the U.S. Open, Karen Khachanov learned a lot of lessons about how to expand his lung capacity. Now comes the biggest moment of his career to date: At age 22 — with time on his side — Khachanov has to walk the fine line between applying those lessons and having the patience to realize that they might not immediately snap into place. Khachanov would love to use his four-hour, 23-minute loss to Rafael Nadal as a launching pad, something which will promptly catapult his career to new heights. Maybe a steady rise will follow this highly encouraging display against one of the legends of the sport, but like Zverev over Djokovic in Rome last year, and like Federer over Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, most eye-opening moments for relatively young players are not immediately followed by breakthroughs at major tournaments.
That first “eye-opener” is important in that it clearly raises the ceiling for the player involved. It offers tangible evidence that higher thresholds of achievement can be reached and crossed. This enables the player to believe in himself more. It enables the coach to believe in the player more. It enables the player to believe in the coach more. It advances the larger project of cultivating an elite athlete.
Yet, it doesn’t mean the highest heights will promptly be reached. Other players are winning matches and growing in confidence. Other coaches are improving in how they communicate with their players. Other journeys are evolving — this is a story of moving parts. Khachanov might improve by (to use a completely arbitrary number) 5 percent in the next six months, but Borna Coric might improve by 10 percent and Stefanos Tsitsipas might improve by 18 percent. He could get better and yet not taste the sweet fruits of major semifinals or Masters finals. Who knows?
What is important for Khachanov after his bold and impressive showing in a loss to Nadal is to allow himself to trust the idea that he is now capable of more.
Of course, athletes want to be number one, want to win majors, want to win as much as possible. The athlete has to have a copious quantity of self-belief. S/he can’t cope with the demands of the sport otherwise. We know this — it is a natural and central part of competition to constantly profess, inwardly or outwardly, total trust in oneself. Yet, within that process of self-trust lies the equal need to be honest with the self. Aspirations can be far-reaching and idealistic, but the work of self-improvement requires no-bullshit honesty and an ability to acknowledge reality exactly for what it is.
You can aspire to conquer the world, but at the start of the journey toward global domination, you have to acknowledge how difficult the task will be, how vast the amount of work required to become the very best. Khachanov isn’t an Alexander Zverev, he isn’t a Marin Cilic, and he isn’t a Kevin Anderson, let alone anywhere near the Big 3. Playing Nadal as well as he did suggests that his upside is considerable, but at the moment, it is a bright, brief burst of ability. One of the central tests of tennis is to take building moments and turn them into stronger foundations, to make use of advancements instead of allowing them to become cruel teases, mere aberrations which become points of frustration, not inspiration, in the course of time.
Khachanov needs to know this performance against Nadal is but a grain of sand on the beach. It’s something he knows he can produce, but the proving ground of sustaining that performance is a place Khachanov doesn’t yet stand on. Moreover, it might take a year for him to get to that elevated place.
Believing he has the talent to get there, though, is essential. That belief will turn moments such as the third-set tiebreaker — when Khachanov double faulted three times — into mentally stronger performances. That belief will enable Khachanov to avoid the agony of Grigor Dimitrov, a man with evident talent who — at age 27 — continues to double fault under considerable scoreboard pressure. Khachanov has years in which to cultivate better habits. He has to trust that when he arrives at another crucible akin to what he faced against Rafa on Friday, his response will be even better.