NICK NEMEROFF – @NNemeroff
Karen Khachanov was brilliant in Paris.
After being one point from the exits against John Isner in the fourth round, Khachanov beat three top-10 players in straight sets. He broke serve 14 times in these three matches and spent less than four hours on court.
Khachanov moved and defended at an extremely high level against Djokovic. He played with a supreme brand of controlled aggression, pushing Djokovic around with balls that had high net clearance but also significant pace and spin. Additionally, he served huge and hit most of his spots.
Most impressively, Khachanov excelled at the mental side of the game. He maintained his composure after falling down 3-1 early and going down 0-30 in multiple service games in the first set. His game plan also didn’t waver — it was clear Djokovic’s physical reserves were running low.
It will be very intriguing to see if Khachanov can build on this massive win as we move into 2019. The game is there. Now it’s time to see if Khachanov can elevate his game to this level week in and week out. Given the extreme nature of his forehand and the physicality his game requires, it will be easier said than done.
MERT ERTUNGA – @MertovsTDesk
The forward progress in Karen Khachanov’s game is nothing less than impressive.
Karen had been a promising player who had a few holes to fill in his game prior to this year, notably his forehand, his comfort level in following aggressive shots to the net, and his obsession with running around the backhand to hit a forehand. None of these represented signs of urgent concern, thanks to his young age, physical assets (strength and height), and athletic abilities.
Having said that, I did not expect him to improve those areas progress at such a rapid pace and climb to the edge of top 10 this early. I would like to especially single out the improvement on his forehand wing. What was a liability is now a weapon, although that may be dependent on conditions – we will find out more about that early in 2019.
The conditions at Bercy heavily favored him and his serve clicked on all cylinders. In my opinion, he still at times chooses to run around the backhand and hit forehands when he should not, notably on short sitters when he should have no problem flattening his backhand out and putting the ball away. He has one of the best backhands on the tour at this point, and on mid-pace or low balls, he can do more with it than he can on his forehand.
It is regrettable that he is most likely not to play in London, because it would have been a good measure of how far the confidence he accumulated in Paris could have taken him against the best competition in the ATP. Barring a disappointing show in the first two months of the 2019 season (less favorable conditions may prove problematic), there is no reason not to expect that he can be a top-10 fixture next year. In terms of the mental package, he is ahead of his years and peers.
MATT ZEMEK – @mzemek
Karen Khachanov caught my eye with his defense at this tournament, specifically in Sunday’s final. He hit two-handed running stretch backhands with pace and placement from highly defensive positions. The man standing on the other side of the net could appreciate that. Yes, Khachanov looked a lot like Novak Djokovic at times in the Bercy final. Serving with power and consistency emerged profoundly in his five-set loss to Rafael Nadal at the U.S. Open. This Bercy tournament, especially the final, marked a showcase for Khachanov’s defensive skills plus an agile, well-calibrated net game with a level of touch I didn’t see in previous tournaments over the spring and summer.
The willingness to expand his game, combined with the skill needed to implement a more layered game plan, show that Khachanov is clearly evolving and has a chance to make 2019 a statement year on tour.
Yet, for all the gains players in their early 20s are making on tour, we are all waiting for a member of this group to become a consistent factor at the majors and throughout a tennis season. Among the highly-ranked players in this age cohort (20 to 23 years old), Sascha Zverev came the closest to being this kind of player on tour in 2018… but he wasn’t a factor at a majority of major tournaments. You’re not a factor if you usually lose in week one. Zverev was a constant presence at the nine Masters 1000s, but not the majors. No other younger-generation player matched that standard.
Let’s see if Khachanov, now much more of a target on tour in 2019, is ready to take everyone’s best shot.