When the final backhand pass went by his opponent’s racquet, Karen Khachanov dropped on his back onto the court in ecstasy and relief. The match was his, on his fifth match point.
Sunday’s Paris final? No, an R-16 match against John Isner on Wednesday.
Khachanov came through — 6-4, 6-7(9), 7-6(8) — saving two match points himself in the third set tiebreak, both with unreturned serves. If you were interested in that match it might have been in the context of the Race For London. John Isner was vying with Kei Nishikori for the last direct entrance to the ATP Finals, in the likely event that Juan Martin del Potro’s fractured patella kept him out of the year’s last tournament.
Nishikori’s win that day over Kevin Anderson and Isner’s defeat likely sealed the honor for Nishikori. Meanwhile, Khachanov didn’t drop another set in the tournament, drubbing Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals and semifinals, then stopping the newly-crowned ATP No. 1, Novak Djokovic, dead in his tracks, ending a 22-match winning streak in the process (not counting Djokovic’s Laver Cup loss to Kevin Anderson).
Djokovic was a prohibitive favorite coming into Sunday’s final. I saw him scratch and claw his way through the field at Cincinnati in August, his easiest win coming in the final against Roger Federer.
Fed, like Djokovic, had seemed out of sorts on his way to that final in the summer, but there was only one guy in that match. Federer struggled to put a return into play and fell tamely in straight sets. In the press conference after that final in Ohio, Federer had dispassionately observed that he thought Novak still had room to improve, and that it would be interesting to see how Djokovic would finish the year.
Federer had the best view in the house on Saturday of near-end-of-year Novak, his semifinal opponent in Paris. Federer’s own level since Cincinnati has been relatively modest, by his standards, since his return to near-full competition in 2017; an R-16 defeat in sweltering conditions in New York to John Millman; then making his way on cussedness rather than top form to a Shanghai semifinal and a Basel title.
A very solid win over Nishikori in the Paris quarters gave Federer’s fans some hope that he’d rise to Djokovic’s challenge the next day, and the two players did provide marvelous entertainment in their three-set match. However, the semifinal was played almost entirely on Djokovic’s terms, on a slowish hardcourt that showcased his precision groundstrokes and elastic retrieving skills. The outcome of the match was in doubt until the final set tiebreak; Djokovic had won the previous two final-set tiebreaks the two men had played, and seven points into this one he had taken a 6-1 lead courtesy of an errant Federer backhand and a double fault. Three points later Djokovic was in another final, his 48th at this level; it would be Khachanov’s first.
I fully expected Djokovic to win comfortably; another of Tennis With An Accent’s contributors, Susie Reid, forecast a straight-set win for Khachanov. At 3-1, 30-0 Djokovic, I felt pretty comfortable in my assessment, but then the wheels started to fall off for Novak. He started the final where he left off against Federer, moving comfortably and controlling the baseline rallies. Then he appeared to donate the break back, and in short succession gave up another couple of breaks at the end of the first set and early in the second set. He had seemed inexhaustible in his three-set wins over Marin Cilic in the QFs and against Federer; now his legs seemed visibly heavy, and his groundstrokes had much less sting.
I’ve seen Djokovic wobble many times mid-match only to get a second wind, but Khachanov didn’t let him off the mat. The 22-year-old Russian played at a consistent level all the way through the match; he served impeccably, and even when literally knocked down by a Djokovic forehand winner while serving for the match, Khachanov played with controlled aggression to take the next three points and, with it, the title.
Just as last year, Paris had produced a surprise champion – and like last year, the eventual winner had saved match points along the way. The ATP World Tour website called Khachanov’s win one of the biggest upsets of the season, a verdict I politely demurred at – not just because of Susie Reid’s forecast, but because Khachanov, like Borna Coric, has made his way into the top 20 this year. A big win has been more a question of when, rather than if.
Unlike Jack Sock in 2017, Khachanov doesn’t vault into the World Tour Finals with this win. He may go to London as an alternate. Federer and Djokovic, of course, will be there. The third member of the ATP Big 3, Rafael Nadal, withdrew from Paris just before the tournament citing an abdominal strain. Nadal hasn’t played competitive tennis since retiring against del Potro in the U.S. Open semifinal with a knee strain. Nadal’s pullout from the ATP Finals let John Isner into his first London in November, and will result in Federer and Djokovic finding themselves in opposite round-robin groups.
The year-end ATP number 1 spot now belongs to Djokovic, almost 600 points to the good over Nadal, whose 2018 season is done. Federer will, almost certainly, finish the season in the number 3 spot. However the World Tour Finals end, the Big 3 will most likely finish the year in the top 3 positions on the tour. Will that be the case in 2019? Khachanov – and Borna Coric, and Dominic Thiem, and Alexander Zverev – hope to have a say in that.
But even if he isn’t competing for one of the top three spots next November, Karen Khachanov knows he’ll always have Paris.
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