Karen Khachanov occupies a specific position after Indian Wells. He is a player who — if told he would have achieved a quarterfinal result before the tournament began — would have been VERY happy with that outcome.
Khachanov had not achieved anything of note in January or February. Weeks, tournaments, cities — they all came and went, without substantial points pickups or confidence-building victories. Khachanov’s Bercy Masters championship wasn’t anything like Jack Sock’s 2017 title in the same tournament. Khachanov’s title required beating elite players. Sock’s did not. Yet, it was impossible to deny that Khachanov had fallen into a very familiar category among tennis players: “Ended one season well, couldn’t start the next season well.”
Sustaining quality — backing up results — had become difficult. The tour had gunned for Khachanov and successfully pushed him back.
As he came to Southern California, Khachanov surely hoped for a kick-start to his season. Making a quarterfinal and playing a full week of tennis almost certainly would have struck him as a good outcome.
After making the quarterfinals, why does it feel to many people that Khachanov really blew it in his Friday match against Rafael Nadal? You know by now that Nadal withdrew from the tournament before his scheduled Saturday semifinal against Roger Federer, over concern about his knee. Nadal received taping just under the knee, a sign of the lingering fragility of his body, during that match against Khachanov. The subsequent decision not to play Federer was an appropriately cautious move by Nadal ahead of the clay season, where he knows he needs to be at his best.
Khachanov had a break lead in both sets against Nadal on Friday, but in the second set, the break lead came after Nadal’s knee problems reemerged. If Khachanov had been able to win the second set, he would have been a huge favorite in the third set. Nadal might not have finished the match, either. Khachanov was, realistically, just a few service holds from occupying a commanding position in that match.
He responded by donating a break in a meltdown-marred service game. He couldn’t win the subsequent tiebreaker and lost a match which was there for the taking.
Khachanov could bounce back just fine, but he will have to confront this memory as his 2019 season continues before he can aspire to top-tier greatness.
A quarterfinal is still a good result, but it sure doesn’t feel the way Khachanov likely expected it to before this tournament began.
In this regard, Khachanov can relate to Garbine Muguruza, another player who was similarly stuck in the first two months of the 2019 season and needed a boost in Indian Wells.
Given that Serena Williams and Kiki Bertens were both in her quarter of the draw, Muguruza likely would have been pleased with a quarterfinal before the tournament began.
After gaining just one game out of 13 games played against Bianca Andreescu, that quarterfinal result doesn’t seem to be as liberating or encouraging as it ought to be.
Yes, Andreescu is showing signs of becoming a special player. Yes, Andreescu backed up her win over Muguruza by beating Elina Svitolina. That might make Garbine feel better. Nevertheless: Almost getting double-bageled can’t be a positive moment for Muguruza.
Indian Wells is as good a tournament as Muguruza — and Karen Khachanov — want it to be. It is up to them to overcome the ways in which they exited this tournament. Those exits didn’t necessarily wipe away the good things they achieved, but they did cast those achievements in a different light.
Such is the complexity of life — and tennis tournaments.
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